Japan on Friday extended a virus state of emergency in Tokyo and expanded the measure to four more regions as it battles a record surge in infections a week into the pandemic-postponed Olympics.
Nationwide virus cases topped 10,000 for the first time on Thursday, and a string of government officials and health experts have warned that the more contagious Delta variant is fuelling a dangerous surge.
Japan’s virus outbreak has been comparatively small, with around 15,000 deaths and no harsh lockdown measures, but only around a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated.
But the record cases come as Tokyo is hosting the Olympics, where organisers on Friday reported 27 new cases related to the event — the highest daily figure yet.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced the expansion of the emergency to Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, which neighbour Tokyo, as well as Osaka in western Japan.
The decision also means that emergency measures in Tokyo and southern Okinawa that had been due to end August 22 will now run until the end of the month.
The measure largely restricts the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants and shortens their opening hours, and there are questions about whether it will be sufficient.
“The highly infectious Delta variant is rapidly taking over and if the increase in infected people does not come down, we could see the number of people in serious condition rise and hospitals overwhelmed,” Suga warned.
Earlier, he said the government would move “with a sense of urgency” given what experts have described as the “worst-ever” surge seen in Japan.
Japan’s case figures remain small compared to surges seen elsewhere, with 3,300 new cases reported in Tokyo on Friday, but they are driving fears the medical system could be overwhelmed.
“We need to send a strong message,” Japan’s Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said earlier, noting the Delta variant now accounts for around half of new cases in the capital.
“We are very concerned,” he added.
‘Hard to think about self-restraint’
The Tokyo Games, which kicked off on July 23, are being held under strict virus rules, including a spectator ban at almost all events and regular testing for participants.
But Haruo Ozaki, chair of the Tokyo Medical Association, warned Thursday that the Games were having an “indirect impact” on Japan’s virus situation.
“People find it hard to think about self-restraint when we’re having this festival,” he said.
Only just over a quarter of Japan’s population has been fully vaccinated, though Suga said Thursday that inoculations were bringing down infection rates among the elderly, who were first in line for doses.
Experts have called on people not to let down their guard and Tokyo government officials have urged younger people to get jabbed.
But many young people are unable to get appointments, with the government admitting demand exceeded its expectations.
On Friday, a health ministry panel approved the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine for over-40s, but it was not yet clear when the jab might start being administered.
Currently, only the Moderna and Pfizer versions are available.
Olympic organisers meanwhile reported 27 new cases related to the event on Friday, including three athletes, bringing the total this month to 225.
Just 98 of the cases involved people coming from abroad, of 39,800 who have come to Japan, according to organisers.
“As far as I’m aware there’s not a single case of an infection spreading to the Tokyo population from the athletes or Olympic movement,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said Thursday.