Japan to end state of emergency over coronavirus crisis

25, May. 2020

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash
Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash

TOKYO, Kyodo - Japan is expected to end its state of emergency over the coronavirus crisis Monday, easing curbs on economic activity that are in place in Tokyo and four other prefectures ahead of schedule, with the spread of infections brought under control.

An advisory panel endorsed the government's plan to lift the emergency in the Tokyo metropolitan area including Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, as well as in Hokkaido in northern Japan, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to make a final decision and declare an end to the state of emergency as he has already done in 42 of the country's 47 prefectures. The premier is scheduled to hold a press conference later in the day.

"After a comprehensive assessment, (the government believes) the state of emergency is no longer necessary in all prefectures," Nishimura told the panel at a meeting on Monday.

The government will establish a transitional period and assess the infection situation every three weeks, Nishimura said, meaning requests for people to stay at home and avoid large gatherings may be eased only gradually.

People will be asked to refrain from crossing prefectural borders until the end of May, according to Nishimura, who is in charge of the virus emergency response.

The panel of infectious disease and public health experts examined the number of newly reported cases over the past week, the availability of medical resources, and the capacity to provide virus tests and monitor the spread of the virus.

One benchmark is whether new infections have fallen below 0.5 per 100,000 people in the past week and all but two prefectures -- Kanagawa and Hokkaido -- have cleared that threshold.

Japanese government officials say the 0.5 benchmark is not the only determinant, adding whether existing cases' transmission routes are traceable is also important, among other factors.

Abe is calling for Japanese people to alter their lifestyles by wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing and working from home to allow the lifting of the state of emergency to breathe life into the recession-hit economy. The Tokyo area and Hokkaido account for about a third of the nation's gross domestic product.

Japan is lifting the coronavirus emergency declaration roughly seven weeks after it was enforced in Tokyo, Osaka and five other urban areas on April 7.

Abe expanded the measure to all 47 prefectures in mid-April ahead of the Golden Week holidays from late April to early May to encourage people to cancel their travel plans.

Earlier in the month, Abe extended the state of emergency until May 31. But on May 14 he exempted 39 prefectures where the spread of the virus had been brought under control, followed by Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo in western Japan last Thursday.

The state of emergency gave prefectural governors legal authority to request people forgo nonessential outings and businesses to suspend their operations, even though Japan cannot legally enforce a hard lockdown similar to those implemented in Europe and the United States.

Governors of areas that have largely dealt with the virus emergency have relaxed such requests on the public and businesses.

The Tokyo metropolitan area has been Japan's hardest-hit region, as the nation's capital with its population of about 14 million people reported the largest number of cases, more than 5,100.

The governors have asked the central government to treat the four prefectures -- Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama -- collectively in any decision to lift the emergency declaration due to their geographic proximity and interlinked economies.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has unveiled a three-stage plan to relax restrictions imposed over the coronavirus, allowing restaurants and eateries to stay open longer and schools to gradually resume classes.

In the first phase, which will likely begin Tuesday, museums and libraries will open while restaurants and eateries will be allowed to stay open until 10 p.m., later than 8 p.m. as permitted under the emergency declaration.

The second phase may begin by the end of the month, metropolitan government sources said, enabling more facilities such as movie theaters and shops selling products other than daily necessities to reopen.

However, karaoke parlors, live music venues and gyms -- places where the risk of group transmission is high -- will be asked to remain closed.

Japan has so far avoided an explosive surge of virus infections with over 17,200 cases and 853 deaths reported across the nation, but infectious disease experts have been calling on the public to remain alert for a second wave as restrictions are lifted.

The tally includes about 700 infections from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined off Yokohama near Tokyo in February. (Kyodo)