Japan to declare state of emergency covering big cities such as Tokyo and Osaka

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak in Japan, a government official said Monday, as a recent surge in infections sweeps Tokyo and other major cities.

The prime minister was set to express his intention of declaring the state of emergency — the first of its kind in Japan — at a meeting of the government’s coronavirus response headquarters as early as Monday afternoon, sources said.

At the meeting, he is expected to ask an advisory committee comprised mainly of infectious disease experts for advice on whether the current situation meets the requirements for issuing a declaration.

The official declaration is expected on Tuesday, and will take effect Wednesday, according to an administration source. Abe is required to specify which areas will be targeted and for how long. Major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka will likely be targeted, the government official added. Hyogo Prefecture could also be covered under the declaration, media reports said.

Abe had been reluctant to issue such a declaration concerned about the possible economic impact. But he reversed course after seeing a surge in infections in metropolitan areas in recent days, according to sources.

Under a law revised in March to cover the coronavirus, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease poses a “grave danger” to lives and if its rapid spread could have a huge impact on the economy. The virus has already increased Japan’s recession risk.

The move would give governors in hard-hit regions legal authority to ask people to stay home and businesses to close, but not to impose the kind of lockdowns seen in other countries. In most cases, there are no penalties for ignoring requests, although public compliance would likely increase with an emergency declaration.

Pressure has mounted for Abe to issue the declaration, with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and the Japan Medical Association calling for the move.

As of Sunday, the number of people who have contracted the pneumonia-causing coronavirus in the country stood at 4,563, including some 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with 104 deaths reported.

Tokyo confirmed 143 new coronavirus infections Sunday, marking the city’s highest rate of daily increase, bringing the total number of cases in the capital to 1,033.

To prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed, the governors of areas subject to the declaration will be able to instruct the public to refrain from going outside except to carry out tasks such as grocery shopping and provide essential services, including health care and transportation.

They can also place restrictions on the use of facilities where large groups of people gather — schools, social welfare facilities, theaters, music venues, sports stadiums — including requesting their temporary closure.

In the event that existing hospitals become overrun and new ones need to be set up quickly, as has been the case in countries including China and the United States, the governors will be able to expropriate private land and buildings under certain circumstances.

They can also requisition medical supplies and food from people that refuse to sell them, and compel companies to help transport emergency goods.

Some in the Abe administration had said a state of emergency declaration is inevitable if the government hopes to prevent the virus from spreading more widely throughout the country.

It is “just a matter of time” before Abe declares a state of emergency, a government source said earlier, citing the growing number of infections in Tokyo.

On Sunday, Abe met with health minister Katsunobu Kato, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. Kato told reporters after the meeting, held at the Prime Minister’s Office, that the participants had discussed the current coronavirus situation.

Nishimura said that the situation in Tokyo, as well as that of other areas nationwide, were discussed.

The coronavirus situation is “very tense,” Nishimura said in a television program earlier in the day, when asked about the possibility of the government declaring a state of emergency.

However, declaring a state of emergency after an “overshoot” — an explosive increase in the number of infections — “would be too late,” Nishimura said.

“The government will do it without hesitation if signs of an overshoot are observed,” he said.

Nishimura also said a state of emergency declaration would “send a big message,” but admitted that there are limits related to the measure, such as a lack of penalties for people who refuse to follow instructions for not going out or holding events. (Reuters)

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