Japan's health minister said Sunday it will be "very difficult" to lift a COVID-19 state of emergency on its planned Sept. 12 expiry, as the country is still struggling to contain surging coronavirus infections and strains on the medical system.
"Given the current situation, it's probably very difficult" to end the emergency declaration covering 21 of Japan's 47 prefectures as scheduled, health minister Norihisa Tamura said on a NHK TV program.
The number of daily COVID-19 cases in Tokyo, for example, must fall below 500 for the state of emergency to be lifted, he said. The capital reported 3,081 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, showing no clear signs of abating anytime soon.
The debate over the extension of the emergency declaration comes as the leadership election for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party is set for Sept. 29, with campaigning to start on Sept. 17.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who doubles as party chief, has repeatedly said he puts top priority on the coronavirus response when asked about the party leadership race and dissolving the lower parliamentary house. The term of the current Lower House members expires on Oct. 21.
The government decided earlier this month to extend the lifting of the emergency declaration from the end of August to Sept. 12, while expanding the areas for the measure to eight more prefectures to bring the total to 21 prefectures.
As the country has been seeing a spike in coronavirus cases nationwide due to the highly contagious Delta variant, hospitals continue to be under strain with COVID-19 patients.
"It's very important to increase the number of hospital beds," Tamura said during the TV program.
Last week, the government and the Tokyo metropolitan government asked all medical institutions in the Japanese capital to secure beds and accept as many COVID-19 patients as possible in the first such state-level request, which allows the authorities to expose the names of hospitals that do not have a valid reason for noncompliance.
Tamura said the ministry does not intend to reveal the names of all medical institutions even if they do not comply with the request in an arbitrary manner, but it is rather focusing on asking them to understand the difficult coronavirus situation.
The request was made for the first time under a revised infectious disease law, but health experts have said the effect of the measure remains unclear.