Japan widens virus emergency to seven more areas as cases surge

TOKYO (AP) — Japan expanded a coronavirus state of emergency to seven more prefectures Wednesday, affecting more than half the population amid a surge in infections across the country.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also said Japan will suspend fast-track entry exceptions for business visitors or others with residency permits, fully banning foreign visitors while the state of emergency is in place.

Suga’s announcement comes less than a week after he declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and three nearby prefectures. The new declaration, which adds seven other prefectures in western and central Japan, took effect yesterday and lasts until February 7.

“The severe situation is continuing, but these measures are indispensable in turning the tide for the better,” Suga said at a news conference, bowing as he sought understanding from the public.

He said he put the seven prefectures urban areas under the state of emergency to prevent infections from spilling over into smaller cities where medical systems are more vulnerable.

People wearing face masks make their way near a station in Osaka, western Japan. PHOTO: AP

The government is asking bars and restaurants in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures to close by 8pm, employers to have 70 per cent of their staff work from home and residents in the affected areas avoid going out for non-essential purposes. Suga has been criticised as being too slow to act as the country’s reported coronavirus infections and deaths roughly doubled over the past month to about 300,000 and 4,100 respectively.

Both states of emergency were declared only after local leaders pleaded with him to do so.

Experts have warned that even the emergency declarations, which are non-binding and largely rely on voluntary cooperation, may be insufficient to significantly slow the infections.

Unlike an earlier seven-week emergency Japan had in April and May last year, schools, gyms, theatres and shops will stay open.

Suga has faced criticism for not taking strong enough government action earlier in the outbreak.

He mostly limited his interventions to asking the public to take basic safety measures such as wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding drinking and dining in groups until mid-December, when he finally announced the suspension of a government-subsidised domestic tourism campaign.

Suga eventually took action after calls from the local leaders, while his support ratings nosedived in polls showing the public increasingly dissatisfied with his handling of the virus. He also came under fire for attending a pricey steak dinner that had eight participants in mid-December.