Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expanded a state of emergency to areas surrounding Tokyo and extended it to the end of August, in the face of a record virus surge unfolding as his country hosts the Olympics.
Suga announced the move Friday at a government task force meeting and said the virus emergency would also add Osaka. He later said the Tokyo surge wasn’t related to the Olympics that are being held without spectators, calling on people to stay home and watch the games on television.
“Infections are spreading at a rate not seen before,” Suga told the task force, warning that more serious cases could put the health care system under strain. He told a news conference after making the decisions that he saw the delta variant as the driver in the spike in cases and was extremely concerned about infections among the young.
The expansion comes after three straight days of record COVID-19 infections in Tokyo and as national daily infection figures soared over 10,000 for the first time since the pandemic began about 18 months ago. Tokyo on Friday posted 3,300 new cases.
While Japan has so far suffered far fewer COVID deaths than any Group of Seven nation, only about 28% of its population is fully vaccinated, the lowest in the group, with the U.S., Germany and Britain at about 50% or higher. The pace of the rollout will affect public sentiment ahead of a general election that must be held by the end of November.
Suga said he was aiming to have more than 40% of the public fully vaccinated by the end of August, with the focus now on immunizing younger people. He also said the central government would provide the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine to areas that want it.
Saying he wants to control the current wave as quickly as possible, Suga also told the news conference he plans to make this the last state of emergency. But some analysts called for clearer messaging from the government, saying that simply waiting for vaccines to deal with the situation wasn’t enough.
“I want Suga to make it clear that the situation really is dire so that people get a renewed sense of urgency,” said Mari Iwashita, chief market economist at Daiwa Securities Co. “The colorless approach he’s taken so far isn’t going to work.”
The government’s plan is to add to the emergency three prefectures adjacent to Tokyo — Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa, where cases are surging. The southern island prefecture of Okinawa, which is also seeing record infections, is already under similar measures.
“It’s hard for Suga to take drastic steps now because the Olympics are under way with the Paralympics to come,” said Hirofumi Suzuki, economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. “Introducing stronger measures now would invite further criticism over the legitimacy of holding the games in the first place.”
The effect on the economy of expanding the emergency may be limited. While bars and restaurants are being instructed to stop serving alcohol and to close by 8 p.m., public fatigue with the restrictions has set in, and some establishments are ignoring the rules, despite the risk of fines.
Cases directly associated with the Olympics have remained relatively low. Tokyo 2020 organizers reported another 27 cases linked to the games Friday, including three athletes, bringing the total to 220, more than half of them residents of Japan.
Asked about his responsibility for the latest rise in cases, which mirrors developments in several other countries, Suga said: “Dealing with virus policy properly is my responsibility, and I believe I can do it.”