Japan has confirmed its first cases of the new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant spreading in Britain, the health ministry said Friday, as the daily number of new infections topped 3,800 for the first time, with the number of deaths also setting a new record at 64.
Five people, four males and one female, all under age 70, tested positive for the new strain, the ministry said. They are now staying at hotels provided by authorities after airport quarantine confirmed their infections following their arrival from Britain.
None of them had close contact with others since returning to Japan, the ministry said. Four of them are asymptomatic.
At least one child under the age of 10 is among the infected. The ministry did not disclose other details of the five.
Two of them arrived at Haneda airport in Tokyo while the others landed at Kansai airport in Osaka Prefecture, western Japan, it said.
"We will do everything we can to eliminate the chances of (the new strain) spreading in Japan," health minister Norihisa Tamura said.
Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told a press conference that as the infections were detected at the airport, he believes the mutant virus "is not spreading in Japan."
Japan on Thursday imposed a temporary ban on new arrivals of foreign nationals from Britain coming for purposes such as business or study, but existing foreign residents and Japanese nationals have still been allowed to enter.
Foreign residents of Japan, who already have to undergo COVID-19 testing as a condition of reentry from most countries, including Britain, are asked to download a tracing app for COVID-19 infections and retain their location data after entering Japan.
Japanese nationals arriving from Britain from Sunday will be required to take virus tests within 72 hours before departure and submit the results upon arrival.
The move came as countries worldwide impose restrictions on travel from Britain following the spread of the strain, which is believed to have caused a spike in infections in London and southeast England.
Tourist visits from Britain are already barred.
British health officials have said the new strain could be up to 70 percent more transmissible but that there was no evidence of it being deadlier or reducing the effectiveness of vaccines.
Cases have already been confirmed in Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa, according to media reports.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meanwhile called on the Japanese public Friday to spend the New Year holidays "quietly" and avoid large gatherings among family and friends in order to curb the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
Speaking at his final press conference of the year, Suga denied any need to declare another state of emergency, saying the government would seek to implement incentives for restaurants to shorten business hours.
"Please cooperate by refraining from gatherings as much as possible, so that we can stop infections from spreading," he said, particularly as the health care system is already strained and will be understaffed during the holidays.
The government will hand out an additional 270 billion yen ($2.6 billion) in emergency aid to hospitals with COVID-19 patients, Suga said.
The prime minister, who has seen his Cabinet's support ratings plunge amid dissatisfaction with his coronavirus response, said he wants parliament to enact legislation that would allow the government to compensate restaurants, bars and other eateries asked to adopt shorter hours and penalize those that do not comply.
Suga also apologized for attending a steak dinner with celebrities last week, saying he had muddled the government's message to avoid large gatherings and was "deeply remorseful."
The appeal to the public came as Tokyo reported its second-highest daily increase of 884 new coronavirus infections on Friday, with cases continuing to rise unabated in the capital and several other areas across the country.
The number of new infections was also the highest logged in Tokyo for a Friday, with the capital rewriting its record for each day of the week for the past 11 consecutive days. Tokyo's cumulative total now stands at 54,902.
Despite the surge, health experts have said the current situation does not warrant a state of emergency, Suga said. A state of emergency was last declared in the country in April and lifted in May.
The prime minister said Japan will bar entry to foreign nationals who have recently been to South Africa, where a separate variant of the coronavirus was found.
The Tokyo metropolitan government last week raised its alert regarding the strain on the medical system to the highest of four levels. It is the first time the most severe level has been reached since the outbreak of the virus.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has urged people to take increased anti-virus measures during the New Year holidays, including refraining from unnecessary outings.