Japan government set to extend state of emergency to May 31

(Corrects Suga’s first name in paragraph 6)

FILE PHOTO: A woman in kimono clad and pedestrians wearing protective face masks, make their way at a shopping district on the first day of the country’s third state of emergency, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan, April 25, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan’s government is set to extend on Friday a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas by about three weeks until the end of May to curb a surge in novel coronavirus cases just months before the start of the Tokyo Olympics.

The government had hoped a “short and powerful” state of emergency would contain a fourth wave of infection, but new cases in the capital Tokyo and second-city Osaka are still at high levels, economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of pandemic measures, said on Friday.

Extending the state of emergency to May 31 from May 11 will leave a margin of less than two months before the July 23 start of the Games, which were postponed a year due to the pandemic.

“Osaka particularly is in quite a dangerous situation with its medical system,” Nishimura said at the start of a meeting with a panel of medical and economic experts, noting that variant strains are spreading rapidly.

“We have a strong sense of danger that Tokyo could soon be turning into the same situation as Osaka.”

The experts later approved the extension plan, Nishimura said. Formal government approval is set for later in the day, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga giving a news conference at 1900 local time (1000 GMT).

All hospital beds for critical patients in Osaka are occupied, public broadcaster NHK reported on Friday.

Nationwide, NHK said Japan has recorded nearly 622,000 cases of novel coronavirus infection and about 10,600 deaths from COVID-19, the respiratory disease the virus causes.

Nishimura said the government aims to place Aichi prefecture to the west of Tokyo and Fukuoka prefecture in the southwest under a state of emergency – joining Tokyo and Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures, home to nearly a quarter of the population.

The northern island of Hokkaido and two other areas will be added to regions under a “quasi state of emergency,” he said.

Under the extended state of emergency, bars, restaurants, karaoke parlours and other places serving alcohol will continue to be asked to stop serving alcohol, while people will continue to be asked to avoid taking unnecessary trips.

But other requests will be loosened, Nishimura said. Commercial facilities such as shopping malls, for instance, will be asked to shorten opening hours rather than close completely.

Japan has not suffered as badly from the virus as other nations, but its vaccination campaign is significantly lagging, with even many elderly people still awaiting inoculation.

Still, Japan and the International Olympic Committee insist the Games will take place, though foreign spectators have been banned. A decision on domestic spectators has yet to be reached.

Upcoming test events for the Olympics, including an athletics event at the weekend, will not be affected by the extension of the state of emergency. The diving World Cup, which featured more than 200 athletes from 50 countries, was held in Tokyo this past week under the current state of emergency.

The governor of Fukuoka prefecture said it could be “difficult” to host the Olympic torch relay under a state of emergency, Jiji news agency reported on Thursday. The relay is set to take place in the prefecture on May 11 and 12.

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