Japan to lift Tokyo area emergency on Sunday but warns against complacency

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: A passersby wearing a protective face mask walks on the Shibuya crossing, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo

By Chang-Ran Kim and Tetsushi Kajimoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan will lift the coronavirus state of emergency in the Tokyo area on Sunday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, while the capital's governor warned citizens not to let down their guard.

Suga said the availability of hospital beds had improved in Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures, where restrictions have remained since early January.

"Following these developments, we’ve decided to lift the state of emergency in Tokyo and Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures as of March 21," said Suga.

While under pressure to bring COVID-19 under control ahead of the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer, the government is eager to jumpstart economic activity in the Greater Tokyo area, whose 36 million residents account for 30% of Japan's population.

But experts noted at the meeting of the government's advisory panel that infections had been creeping up and a resurgence was likely.

This is why not all curbs will be lifted. After the end of the emergency, the four prefectures will ask restaurants to close by 9 p.m., at least until the end of March, to reduce the chance of a resurgence in infections, Kanagawa Governor Yuji Kuroiwa said on Wednesday.

The number of new COVID-19 cases has plunged from a peak in early January, when the third and most deadly wave of the pandemic swept the country. But the daily tally for Tokyo remains far from Governor Yuriko Koike's target of reducing the seven-day average to 70% or lower than the preceding week.

On Wednesday, the capital reported 409 cases, compared with a peak of 2,520 on Jan. 7, but the highest since mid-February.

Koike warned residents not to let their guard down.

"The first drop of vaccines for (Tokyo's) 14 million has only just begun, and until we're done, we have to fight with our bare hands," she said.

While other parts of the country lifted the emergency status at the end of February, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures extended it, with officials saying they wanted to see a continued decline in infections and hospitalisations.

As of Wednesday, about 449,000 people have tested positive in Japan and 8,715 have died.

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Kaori Kaneko and Tetsushi Kajimoto; Additional reporting by Rocky Swift; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Muralikumar Anantharaman and Nick Macfie)