TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A government panel of medical experts said Thursday that schools can reopen in areas without new confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, proposing to relax the current nationwide approach to pre-empt a further spread.
But the panel stressed the need for organizers to carefully consider whether to hold large gatherings to reduce group transmission risks.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has relied on the panel's assessment in determining his government's crisis response measures. His abrupt requests in late February that schools should shut through the end of a spring break in April also came after it released its view.
The experts said previously that clusters of infections had appeared in parts of the country, but an "explosion" of cases was being prevented. An update was due on Thursday with its assessment on whether the country's preventive measures have been effective.
The update came ahead of a three-day weekend in Japan where the number of cases has topped 1,600, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was under quarantine near Tokyo in February.
Among the four prefectures that have reported over 100 cases, a state of emergency was lifted in Hokkaido, northern Japan, after its governor declared it in late February.
Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura requested Thursday that nonessential travel between the western prefecture and neighboring Hyogo be avoided over the extended weekend.
The panel, consisting of experts on infectious diseases and public health, said Thursday night that infections have grown mainly in city areas with transmission routes unclear in a growing number of cases.
It is important to prevent clusters, or small groups of infections, from getting larger, and an explosive increase from leading to an epidemic in Japan.
The panel continued to ask people to avoid crowded areas, closed spaces and poor ventilation to lower the risk of contracting the virus.
Japan has been bolstering its steps in recent weeks to curb domestic infections after Abe came under fire for his slow response to the viral outbreak that began in China in December.
Prior to the school closure request, Abe also asked organizers to cancel, postpone, or scale down big sports and entertainment events.
The requests were based on the panel's view in late February that "a week or two" would determine whether Japan can prevent a surge in domestic infections.
A day after the panel said it was too early to relax vigilance despite no apparent jump in domestic cases, Abe on March 10 asked for an extension until around Thursday to his event cancellation request.
Despite the voluntary nature of Abe's requests, many schools in the country have been closed while major sports and entertainment events have been canceled.
Slowing consumer activity has raised concerns about the fragile economy entering a recession in the aftermath of a sales tax hike in October.
This has prompted calls from lawmakers for fresh stimulus worth over 30 trillion yen ($274 billion) to cope with an economic shock that, some say, could be bigger than the 2008 financial crisis after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
Some conservative lawmakers from Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party are calling for reducing the consumption tax rate from the current 10 percent to 5 percent, an idea backed by some opposition lawmakers.
But Finance Minister Taro Aso, who is tasked with restoring the country's fiscal health, the worst among advanced nations, has sounded negative about lowering the tax rate.
The government held a meeting with the ruling and opposition parties on Thursday to coordinate efforts to fight the pneumonia-causing virus and discuss economic priorities.
Abe has said the top priority is to contain COVID-19, the illness caused by the new virus but that the government will take "powerful" steps to put the economy back on a growth path.