Gov't panel says coronavirus infections feared "rampant" in Japan

26, Mar. 2020

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TOKYO, Kyodo - A government panel of experts on Thursday said new-coronavirus infections in Japan appear highly likely to be "rampant," an assessment paving the way for the launch of a national headquarters to better respond to the outbreak.

The setting up of the headquarters sets off a process that would enable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency if necessary under a recently revised law.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato submitted the panel's assessment to Abe and the Cabinet is expected to decide on the launch of the headquarters, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The assessment came amid growing concerns about a spike in infections in urban areas. On Wednesday, Tokyo reported 41 cases, the largest daily increase in the country's 47 prefectures, prompting its governor Yuriko Koike to say the capital faces "an important phase in preventing an explosive rise." Tokyoites are asked to stay indoors over the weekend.

Once the national headquarters is established, the government will draw up a basic policy on how to respond to the new coronavirus.

But it doesn't automatically mean a state of emergency will be declared. The prime minister still needs to seek opinions from an advisory panel of medical experts before he can declare one.

A declaration, under the law on new types of influenza and infectious diseases, is seen by government officials as a last-resort and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that the current situation does not warrant it.

"A state of emergency declaration would have a grave impact on people's everyday life so the government needs to carefully make a judgement based on various expert views," Suga said at a press conference.

An emergency declaration would restrict individual rights, allowing prefectural governors to call for specific action to prevent the spread of the virus that has spread from China's Wuhan since late last year.

Local governors can demand that local residents stay indoors, ask for cancellations of events and restrict the use of schools and facilities where large numbers of people gather.

They will be allowed to expropriate private land and facilities to provide medical care if their initial request is refused for no good reason.

The number of coronavirus cases has topped 2,000 in Japan, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined for two weeks near Tokyo. (Kyodo)