A Japanese government panel of experts on Wednesday warned of a health care system collapse if a sharp increase in coronavirus infections seen recently in urban areas continues, stressing the need for people in areas seeing an accelerating spread to keep outings to a minimum.
In a recommendation released after their meeting, the experts said, even though the country has not seen an explosive increase in infections so far, the health care system in Tokyo and four prefectures of Kanagawa, Aichi, Osaka and Hyogo is under increased strain and "drastic countermeasures need to be taken as quickly as possible."
(Takaji Wakita, third from left, head of a Japanese government panel of experts working on measures against the new coronavirus, and his deputy Shigeru Omi, second from left, attend a press conference in Tokyo on April 1, 2020.)
Tokyo confirmed 66 new cases of infection on Wednesday, a day after the capital posted its largest daily increase of 78 cases. The total number of infections in Japan topped 3,000 the same day, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined earlier this year near Tokyo.
Following the recommendation, the government plans to unveil detailed guidelines on the reopening of schools across the country.
A growing number of infections, particularly in urban areas such as Tokyo, have raised questions about when schools, most of which shut in late February in response to a government request, can resume classes. The new Japanese academic year normally begins in early April.
"The education ministry plans to announce more detailed guidelines after taking into account discussions by the government panel of medical experts and the situation of infections, which is changing day by day," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference earlier in the day.
The education ministry in late March notified local education boards of steps to be followed when they reopen schools, such as ensuring that classrooms are properly ventilated.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that the government would review its decision to allow schools to resume classes depending on opinions expressed at the panel.
The Tokyo metropolitan government has decided to keep public schools closed through May 6 when the country's Golden Week holiday ends.
Abe requested school closures in late February, forcing many working parents to take time off to look after their children at home.
The recent spike in infections in Tokyo has raised the alarm among government officials and medical experts, stoking fears of a citywide lockdown.
Suga said Japan is still facing a "critical moment." But he also repeated that the current situation does not call for a state of emergency declaration.
The coronavirus outbreak is also expected to seriously impact the Japanese economy, which has already been under pressure from last October's consumption tax hike and subsequent slowdowns in household spending and business investment.
Abe told a parliamentary session that the government will compile its boldest-ever stimulus package next week, while also pledging to extend support to domestic airlines hit by travel bans or restrictions by many countries due to the virus.
"Air traffic is our fundamental infrastructure. In order to achieve an economic recovery, we should not leave the basic infrastructure damaged," Abe said.
An industry body has estimated that Japanese airlines will suffer a total of 1 trillion yen ($9.3 billion) revenue fall over the next 12 months.