Tokyo, Japan – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a month-long state of emergency in and around Tokyo on Thursday, urging residents of the capital to avoid going out and asking bars and restaurants to close at 8 p.m. in the middle a record increase in COVID-19 infections.
The emergency will run from Friday to February 7 and will cover the capital and three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba – an area that is home to around 30% of the country’s population.
“I am very alarmed by the grave situation across the country recently,” Suga said at a press conference. “Please take this matter seriously as yours, to protect all precious life, your grandparents, family and friends.”
The statement came as Tokyo recorded a new daily record of 2,447 COVID-19 infections, a figure that shattered the record of 1,591 cases reported on Wednesday. Nationwide, a new record of more than 7,000 cases was reported on Thursday.
Since the start of the pandemic, Japan – which has the oldest population in the world – has recorded more than 266,000 cases and 3,859 deaths, numbers well below those seen in many advanced economies around the world.
Suga also imposed caps on participation in sporting and other events on 5,000 people and urged residents of the four prefectures to work from home with the aim of reducing suburban traffic by 70%.
He pledged additional help for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients and said efforts were underway to approve a vaccine and start vaccinations by the end of February.
The emergency is Japan’s second, but it is more limited than that imposed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last April, when mass gatherings were called off and schools, businesses and nightclubs shut down. been largely closed across the country for about six weeks.
Reducing transmission is key for Japan as the country is preparing to host the delayed Tokyo Olympics in July. But medical experts believe Thursday’s measures may not be enough to curb Japan’s third and worst wave.
Kenji Shibuya, professor at Kings College London, UK, called for a national lockdown and said the impact of the new restrictions “will be limited given the current increase in cases.”
“The prime minister’s main objective is to reorganize the economy, which is understandable. But in order to do that, you really have to suppress the transmission of the virus, ”Shibuya told Al Jazeera from Tokyo. “They should announce a lockdown.”
Shibuya also criticized the government’s decision to primarily target bars and restaurants, saying, “In 60% of cases, they don’t know where they got the infection.
“It could be home, workspaces, schools, we don’t know. Still, they say dining out is a major source of transmission, which isn’t necessarily supported by evidence.
Hiroshi Nishiura, an epidemiologist at Kyoto University, said on Tuesday that limiting restaurant opening hours in Tokyo would only reduce cases to around 1,300 a day by the end of February. The number is much higher than the 500 cases per day that Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s pandemic response, said needed for the emergency declaration to be lifted.
Nishiura said for cases to get down to manageable levels, an emergency declaration would have to last at least two months and restrictions would need to be tightened further.
“Efficiency must be a priority if the government is considering declaring an emergency,” he said. “If the effort fails, there could be enormous social and economic damage, in addition to psychological damage.”
Japanese law does not allow the country’s authorities to force compliance with emergency measures, but lawmakers were in talks to propose legislation punishing individuals or businesses who fail to comply with the restrictions.
For now, the Japanese government plans to name and shame those who don’t close early and offer grants of 60,000 Japanese yen ($ 579) a day to companies that do.
Tokyo-area restaurateurs said the new measures would cause more suffering for the hospitality industry.
“Many older customers that we were used to seeing haven’t shown up for a while, even before announcing the early closing times,” said Mihoko Hiramatsu, who runs a Japanese restaurant in the city center. from Tokyo. “During the last state of emergency, I had to fire our staff due to a temporary closure. This time I decided to remove the break between lunch and dinner hours to keep our place open as much as possible.
Yuji Tanabe, who runs a ramen shop in Tokyo, said he would cooperate with the new measures.
“There is no other option,” he said.
Tanabe said the average dinner attendance rate had already dropped by half, but the number of lunchtime customers remained around 80% from pre-pandemic levels. Maintaining alternative channels such as food deliveries and selling home-cooked ramen kits online has been crucial for the store’s survival, he said.
He welcomed the compliance allowance, but noted that the amount “would never be enough for night-dependent businesses like bars.”
Prior to the declaration of emergency, some businesses not subject to the new measures such as the Tokyo Disney Resort also said they would close early.
Meanwhile, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics have also announced that they will postpone the display of the Olympic torch in the capital.
Suga, who pledged earlier this week to make Japan’s organization of the Olympics “proof that mankind has beaten the virus”, doubled down on the plan on Thursday. “We are determined to organize a safe and peaceful Olympic Games with comprehensive anti-infective measures,” he said.
Kantaro Komiya reported from Tokyo, Japan. Zaheena Rasheed reported from Malé, Maldives.