Japan extended on Friday a state of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas until the end of May to stem a surge in novel coronavirus cases, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reiterated that it was still possible to host the Tokyo Olympics just months away.
The government had hoped a "short and powerful" state of emergency would contain a fourth wave of infection, but new cases in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are still at high levels, Suga said, announcing the decision.
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 last year due to the pandemic.
Responding to a question about the public's continued unease about hosting the Tokyo Olympics, Suga reiterated that Japan would be able to host a safe event while following appropriate virus containment measures.
"We are putting all our efforts into stemming the spread of infections," Suga told a news conference on Friday, after acknowledging that he was "aware" of concerns from the public about the Games. Suga said Olympics organisers were considering a series of anti-virus measures that would protect the health and lives of the Japanese public.
"We believe it is possible to host a safe and secure Olympics," he said.
Suga, noting that speeding up vaccinations was the best defence, promised to fast-track the government's efforts on that front and said it aimed to administer 1 million shots a day. Only around 2 percent of Japan's population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Reuters data.
Nationwide, Japan has recorded 618,197 cases of infection and 10,585 deaths from Covid-19, government figures showed.
Osaka prefecture reported 1,005 new cases on Friday while Tokyo had 907. At one nursing home in Osaka, 61 residents were infected with the coronavirus and 14 died while waiting to be hospitalised, public broadcaster NHK reported.
The government also placed Aichi prefecture, home to Toyota Motor Corp, and Fukuoka prefecture in the southwest under a state of emergency, joining Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto, where current measures began on April 25.
The northern island of Hokkaido and two other prefectures were added to regions under a "quasi state of emergency," now totalling eight of Japan's 47 prefectures.
Under the extended state of emergency, bars, restaurants, karaoke parlours and other places serving alcohol will remain closed, while people will be urged not to travel unless necessary.
Tokyo and Osaka will continue to keep large commercial facilities such as shopping malls closed, Kyodo News reported.
Think tanks forecast more pain for the economy ahead.
Nomura Research Institute estimated in a report the government's latest measures would lead to a total economic loss of about 1.76 trillion yen (US$16.13 billion), while Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimated the extended and expanded states of emergency could slash 45,000 jobs.
Dai-ichi Life said household consumption in the six prefectures covered in the state of emergency accounts for about 38 percent of the total.
Japan has not suffered as badly from the virus as other countries but its vaccination campaign has been slow, 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 will be made by June, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto repeated on Friday.
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.
But in Fukuoka, the Olympic torch relay scheduled on May 11 and 12 will be cancelled entirely, Kyodo reported on Friday. Hyogo prefecture is likely to keep the relay off public roads when its turn comes later this month, Kyodo said.
Meanwhile, more than 230,000 people have signed a Japanese petition calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled in the two days since it was launched online, as public concerns mount over holding the showpiece event during a pandemic.
With 11 weeks to go before the start of the Games, already postponed from 2020 due to the coronavirus, questions remain over how Tokyo can host the global gathering while keeping volunteers, athletes, officials and the Japanese public safe from Covid-19.
Organised by Kenji Utsunomiya, a lawyer who has run several times for Tokyo governor, the "Stop Tokyo Olympics" petition https://www.change.org/p/cancel-the-tokyo-olympics-to-protect-our-lives-stoptokyoolympic has gathered more than 230,000 signatures.
"Japanese people tend to not voice our opinions but there are many people now speaking up. Together with voices from overseas, I hope the Olympics will be cancelled for now," he said. (Reuters)
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