The government will hear opinions from health experts soon on whether to declare a state of emergency in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures hit by surging coronavirus cases, taking heed of a request by their governors, officials said Sunday.
A panel of infectious disease and other experts will likely discuss details such as which areas should be put under a state of emergency and for how long, after examining the current state of infections and medical systems, according to the officials.
Japan is struggling to curb coronavirus infections with more than 3,100 new cases confirmed on Sunday.
Tokyo reported 816 new infections, bringing the cumulative total to 62,590, by far the largest among the country's 47 prefectures.
The capital also said the number of people with severe symptoms rose to 101, the first three-digit figure since a state of emergency over the virus was fully lifted in late May.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been reluctant to make another declaration as the economy was dealt a severe blow in the spring of 2020 when his predecessor Shinzo Abe declared an emergency over the novel coronavirus.
Alarmed by the recent resurgence of the virus, the prefectural governors of Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama urged the central government on Saturday to declare an emergency and curb the spread of the virus that has strained medical systems.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of the country's coronavirus response, told reporters after his meeting with the local leaders that the situation is "severe" and warrants considering again declaring a state of emergency.
The central government asked the governors, including Tokyo's Yuriko Koike, to make sure that restaurants and karaoke establishments close earlier and working remotely continues. Many people in Japan will return to work on Monday after the New Year's holidays.
Suga is expected to explain his view on the current spread of the virus as he is scheduled to hold his first press conference of the year on Monday.
Under Japanese law, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency, which will give local governors the authority to request that shops shorten their opening hours or temporarily close.
Any declaration, however, will not lead to hard lockdowns as such requests are not legally binding. Another issue is how to support businesses that will be affected.
"As the pandemic has been prolonged, we are not sure whether businesses already struggling will follow (requests to restrict their operations)," a government source said.
Abe placed urban areas such as Tokyo under a state of emergency first and then expanded it to other parts of the country in April and May. Many citizens refrained from going out and businesses complied with requests by local governors, helping Japan see a sharp drop in coronavirus cases.
Nonetheless, public dissatisfaction with Abe over his handling of the pandemic grew and the government was perceived as doing too little too late and being out of sync with local governments.
The economy suffered its worst contraction in the April-June quarter and Suga, who succeeded Abe in September, has been seeking a balance between reviving the economy and keeping the spread of the virus in check.