Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday he expects to decide on whether to extend the state of emergency covering Tokyo and other parts of Japan struggling to stem the spread of the coronavirus several days before it is set to end on Feb. 7.
Speaking at a parliamentary committee, Suga said the timing of the decision has to strike the right balance -- too early, and health experts would not be able to examine the latest data, too late, and people would be caught off guard.
The comments came as a growing number of people in his administration and ruling Liberal Democratic Party believe an extension is inevitable.
According to sources familiar with the matter, one option being floated is to maintain the state of emergency, under which the public is urged to refrain from going outside unnecessarily while restaurants and bars are asked to shorten their opening hours, until the end of February.
The state of emergency covers 11 of Japan's 47 prefectures -- Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Tochigi, Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka -- and more than half of the country's population and about 60 percent of its economy.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, said at the meeting of the House of Councillors' Budget Committee that the situation improving from Stage 4, the worst level on the government's four-point scale, to Stage 3 would not immediately warrant lifting the state of emergency.
"We will make a decision based on a comprehensive assessment of the situation," he said.
The stages are based on six key indicators, including the weekly number of infections per 100,000 people and the percentage of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients currently available.
About 4,000 new coronavirus cases were reported across Japan on Wednesday, including 973 in Tokyo, according to a Kyodo News tally based on local government reports.
The number of patients hospitalized with severe symptoms topped 1,000 for the first time, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said.
Daily infections in Tokyo, which is set to host the Olympics and Paralympics in six months, have been showing a downward trend in recent days.
The capital has seen four-digit increases almost every day since entering January, but Wednesday's figure stayed below the 1,000 mark for the third time since Sunday. Its cumulative cases now stand at 96,507.
However, as the number of patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms still hovers at around 150, Tokyo faces the risk of a medical system collapse. There has also been an increase in people dying at home due to a lack of available hospital beds.
Also Wednesday, administrative reform minister Taro Kono, who leads vaccination efforts in Japan, told reporters that the elderly will not be vaccinated until April 1 at the earliest, signaling a slight delay from the government's initial plan.
The government earlier said vaccinations are slated to begin by late February, starting with medical workers, followed by people aged 65 or older from late March, and then people with pre-existing conditions and those caring for the elderly.
Health experts have warned that rushing to lift the state of emergency too soon would quickly lead to a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Asked by opposition lawmaker Renho whether there was any scientific data backing up his promise to improve the situation by the Feb. 7 end date, Suga said the pledge was a sign of his "strong determination" to stem the spread of the coronavirus and that it would have been inappropriate to speak of an extension too soon.
Public support for Suga, who took office in September, is dwindling due to what has been criticized as a sluggish pandemic response. A Kyodo News poll conducted this month showed his Cabinet's approval rating at 41.3 percent, down 9 percentage points from December.