TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced Friday Japan will lift its COVID-19 state of emergency for six prefectures at the end of the month, but the Tokyo metropolitan area will have to wait for further signs that its situation is improving.
Of the 10 prefectures under the state of emergency, Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo and Fukuoka will be removed from the list a week earlier than the scheduled end date of March 7 as infections have declined and the strain on hospitals has eased.
The decision comes as the government seeks to revive an economy hit by plummeting household spending and the absence of foreign tourists. Some health experts, however, warn an early exit could lead to a resurgence in infections.
"It's important that we don't let our guard down," Suga said at a meeting of the government's coronavirus task force after a panel of experts in infectious diseases and other areas approved the move.
To exit the state of emergency, a prefecture must see its situation improve from Stage 4, the worst level on the government's four-point scale.
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.
Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo have all cleared most of the criteria. Fukuoka has lagged in bringing down hospital occupancy rates, but the government expects further progress as infection numbers continue to recede, an official said.
Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama have seen some improvement but are to remain under the state of emergency for the time being.
Under the state of emergency, people have been asked to refrain from unnecessarily leaving their homes, while restaurants and bars are required to close by 8 p.m. with fines for noncompliance.
Businesses are encouraged to adopt remote working, while attendance at large live events such as concerts and sports has been capped at 5,000.
While the government is eager to get the world's third-largest economy back on track, some health experts have expressed concern an early exit could lead to a resurgence in infections, especially as children enter and graduate from school and companies do their annual new staff intakes. The always busy cherry blossom-viewing season will also enter full swing across the country.
The head of the Japan Medical Association, Toshio Nakagawa, on Thursday warned of complacency among the public, saying, "There is a danger it could send the wrong message that everything is all right now."
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the COVID-19 response, said in a parliamentary committee meeting Friday the government was planning a "strategic expansion" of infection testing that targets hot spots such as nightlife areas to prevent such a scenario.
Lifting the state of emergency will not mean an immediate return to normalcy, with some measures to be gradually eased. For example, the cap on event attendance will increase to 10,000 before it can be removed entirely.
The nationwide tally of coronavirus cases has fallen from the single-day record of nearly 8,000, logged in early January when the state of emergency was declared, to a little more than 1,000 on Thursday. There were 74 deaths attributed to COVID-19 the same day, down from the peak of 121 in early February but still relatively high.
According to a person in Suga's periphery, he had been leaning toward announcing on Friday that the state of emergency would be lifted for Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures as scheduled on March 7.
But, the person said, health experts advised him that based on the latest data, such a decision would be premature.
Suga initially declared a state of emergency for one month to Feb. 7 for the Tokyo metropolitan area before expanding it to a total of 11 prefectures. The declaration was later extended to March 7, with the exception of Tochigi.