Japan to expand virus state of emergency beyond Tokyo as cases top 300,000

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in seven additional prefectures, including Osaka and Aichi, expanding the measure as Japan's cumulative total of coronavirus cases topped 300,000 amid a recent spike in infections.
Along with the Tokyo metropolitan area, which came under a state of emergency last week, a total of 11 prefectures covering more than half of the country's population and around 60 percent of its economy will remain under the measure through Feb. 7.
People are being asked to stay home and restaurants to close by 8 p.m., while firms are encouraged to have employees work from home or stagger their shifts.
The five other prefectures to be covered by the state of emergency are Tochigi to the north of Tokyo, Gifu in central Japan, Hyogo and Kyoto in the west, and Fukuoka to the southwest.
"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.
While the country has seen a rapid increase in the number of infections since the cumulative total surpassed 200,000 in late December, Nishimura expressed reluctance to expand the emergency nationwide.
"We have to carefully think whether we should subject areas to it that have kept the number of infections low," he said.
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 behavior, 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 and university entrance exams set to begin later this week will go ahead.
The planned expansion comes days after Suga said the situation in Osaka and Aichi did 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 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 a 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 based on a request but on whether enough hospital beds are secured for COVID-19 patients.
A state of emergency declaration by the central government gives legal grounds for local authorities to urge people to stay at 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 coronavirus infections slowed.

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