TOKYO (JAPAN) – With COVID-19 cases touching a record high on Wednesday, the Japanese government is facing immense pressure from health experts to implement a strict state of emergency for the Tokyo greater metropolitan area.
Regional governors have pushed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to call for a declaration of emergency after Tokyo and surrounding areas were out under the highest level of four-stage alert. Suga is expected to make an announcement on Thursday.
The health ministry held a meeting of infectious disease experts on Wednesday, they have called for stricter and longer countermeasures, while Suga has sought a more limited response to avoid damaging the economy.
“Even if we take strong measures immediately, it will be difficult to bring the Tokyo metropolitan area down to stage 3 by the end of January,” Takaji Wakita, chief of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told reporters after the meeting.
New infections nationwide reached 5,307, a new daily record according to a tally by national broadcaster NHK. Tokyo reported 1,591 cases, also an all-time high.
According to simulations by Kyoto University scientist Hiroshi Nishiura, without rigid new measures, daily infections in Tokyo could touch 3,500 per day by February and hit 7,000 by March. Inorder to bring down the infections to a manageable level, an emergency declaration would need to last at least two months, he said.
As Japan is preparing to host the Olympics this summer, the government is anxious about the economic impact long term emergency could bring. However, a senior ruling party lawmaker said on Tuesday it should be imposed for one month, and extended if necessary.
The government’s top spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, said a decision would likely come on Thursday on whether and for how long to impose the second state of emergency since the start of the pandemic.
Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures have asked residents to refrain from non-essential, non-urgent outings after 8 p.m. from Friday until at least the end of the month, and said restaurants and bars must close by that time.
Economists have warned of a huge damage to gross domestic product (GDP) if restrictions are prolonged or expanded, but said that could be unavoidable.
“If you consider the current number of infected, and weather-related factors, it may be difficult to end it in one month,” said BNP Paribas Securities senior economist Hiroshi Shiraishi. “The probability of it running longer is not low.”
Shiraishi estimated that a one-month state of emergency in the Tokyo area would push consumer spending down 1.1% and first-quarter GDP by about 0.5 percentage points. That would double to 1 point if extended to two months, and to 2 points if expanded nationally, he predicted.
Nationwide, COVID-19 infections reached a daily record of 4,915 on Tuesday, while deaths were also an all-time high of 76.