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Japan may decide Thursday whether to end Tokyo's COVID-19 emergency

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, center, is seen at the Diet in Tokyo on March 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government could decide Thursday whether to stick to its plan to end the COVID-19 state of emergency covering the Tokyo metropolitan area this weekend or to further extend the measure, officials said Monday.

    While some in the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are in favor of easing some restrictions, there are lingering concerns over a resurgence in infections and the spread of more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Suga told a parliamentary session it was impossible to say just yet whether the state of emergency could be lifted for Tokyo and Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures, stressing he would look at the latest data and consult with health experts before making a final decision.

    Under the emergency, people are being urged to avoid leaving home unnecessarily, while restaurants and bars must close by 8 p.m. Businesses are encouraged to adopt remote working, while attendance at large-scale events such as concerts and sports games has been capped at 5,000.

    Infections had been falling since the restrictions were imposed on Jan. 7, but the pace of decline has bottomed out in recent weeks and even slightly rebounded in some prefectures.

    Tokyo reported 175 new coronavirus cases on Monday, up from 116 a week earlier and bringing its cumulative total to 115,584. Saitama saw 72 cases the same day, up from 65 a week prior.

    According to the officials, Suga is set to confer with members of his Cabinet including health minister Norihisa Tamura and Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, as early as Tuesday on whether the situation has improved enough to lift the emergency.

    The decision comes with less than five months until the Tokyo Olympics, which the International Olympic Committee and the local organizers insist will go on despite concerns over the pandemic.

    A senior administration official said an exit from the state of emergency looked likely, given the decline in infections and the receding risk of hospitals becoming overwhelmed as beds to treat COVID-19 patients have become more widely available.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's advisory board is expected to hold a meeting on Wednesday to make its assessment, with Suga to announce a decision at a meeting of the government's COVID-19 task force possibly on the following day.

    Governors of the Tokyo metropolitan area were split on the appropriate direction to go in. "We are not at the stage of asking for (the emergency) to be lifted," Saitama Gov. Motohiro Ono told reporters, adding that another extension was still an option.

    Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa said easing restrictions was "going in the right direction," while Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita said it was too early to say either way. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike simply called on the public to keep up measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

    Some health experts, meanwhile, warn even an extension would be insufficient to further bring down infections. Shigeru Omi, head of the government's COVID-19 subcommittee, told the parliamentary session it would not be a "real solution."

    A government source echoed the view, saying restrictions currently in place had reached their limits.

    Suga declared a one-month state of emergency in the metropolitan area on Jan. 7 amid a surge in infections, later expanding the measure to a total of 11 prefectures and extending it for most of them by another month, to March 7. It was further extended by two weeks to Sunday for the capital and its neighbors.

    Like other countries, Japan has tightened border controls to prevent coronavirus cases from overseas, barring entry to virtually all nonresident foreign nationals. As COVID-19 vaccinations have become more widespread, however, discussions on how to safely resume travel are ramping up.

    Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccination efforts, said Monday the government would look into issuing certificates to people who have been vaccinated if asked to do so by other countries.

    "If requested internationally, we will have no other choice but to consider" the move, Kono said in the parliamentary session, adding the certificates would not be used domestically. Last month, he appeared to shoot down the idea, arguing it would exclude people who cannot be inoculated because of allergies.

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