Suga to expand virus emergency to 7 more prefectures

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to declare a state of emergency in seven additional prefectures including Osaka and Aichi on Wednesday, expanding the scope of the measure amid a resurgence of the coronavirus across Japan.
A state of emergency was imposed for a second time in the Tokyo metropolitan area last Friday, with people encouraged to stay home and restaurants asked to close by 8 p.m.
The prefectures newly declared under a state of emergency -- including Tochigi, Gifu, Hyogo, Kyoto and Fukuoka -- will remain in the status through Feb 7 like Tokyo and its surrounds.
Their addition brings the number of prefectures under the state of emergency to 11.
"If we work together, we can certainly turn the number of infected people into a declining one," said Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, at a House of Representatives committee meeting.
Nishimura expressed reluctance to expand the declaration nationwide, saying, "We have to carefully think whether we should subject areas to it that have kept the number of infections low."
Health minister Norihisa Tamura told an expert panel meeting that Japan continues to be in a "very serious situation" in terms of infections, and urged the public to avoid risky behaviors including dining in large groups.
Unlike hard lockdowns some other countries have imposed, residents of the target areas are only asked to refrain from nonessential outings, and there is no punishment for those who fail to comply. Schools will remain open, while firms will be encouraged to have employees work from home or stagger their shifts.
The development comes days after Suga said the situation in Osaka and Aichi does not warrant a state of emergency.
Osaka, which appeared to be containing the spread of the virus at the end of 2020, reported more than 3,800 new cases in the week through Monday. Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures have also reported record-high daily figures, putting a strain on the region's medical system.
The occupancy rate of hospital beds for those suffering serious cases in Osaka has been hovering around 70 percent since December, with the prefecture logging a record 171 such patients earlier this month.
Aichi had 49 serious cases with overall COVID-19 hospitalizations at record 696 as of Monday.
Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures requested Saturday to be included in the state of emergency while Tochigi, Gifu and Aichi prefectures did so Tuesday. Fukuoka has not made such a request.
Nishimura told a lower house committee the government's decision to declare a state of emergency is not made on a request basis but on whether enough hospital beds are secured for COVID-19 patients.
Ahead of the expected expansion of the state of emergency, Hyogo has requested restaurants and bars in parts of the prefecture to close by 9 p.m. Osaka and Kyoto have made similar moves.
A state of emergency declaration by the central government gives legal grounds for local authorities to urge people to stay home as much as possible and request or instruct restrictions on facility use. It also gives them the right to highlight publicly the names of eateries that do not comply with a request to shorten operating hours.
A state of emergency was previously declared in Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka prefectures in early April during Japan's first wave of infections, and was expanded nationwide later that month. It was lifted in steps in May as the increase in numbers of new coronavirus infections slowed.

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