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Japan to tighten curbs as COVID cases hit record

Tokyo and 12 other prefectures set to be placed under quasi state of emergency

Commuters walk through a train station in Tokyo on Monday.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan is set to elevate COVID-19 alert levels in Tokyo and 12 prefectures, allowing the governors to tighten restrictions on social activities as case numbers hit a daily record.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the additional curbs after meeting with ministers on Tuesday. Japan reported a record of more than 32,000 new infections as the fast-spreading omicron variant becomes more prevalent.

A decision is expected on Wednesday based on a recommendation from experts. The measures will likely last about three weeks from Friday through Feb. 12.

The designation of a quasi state of emergency will give prefectural governors the authority to ask -- but not compel -- bars and restaurants to reduce opening hours and suspend liquor sales.

The affected regions include Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures of Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa and Gunma. Outside the greater Tokyo region, Niigata, Gifu, Aichi, Mie, Kagawa, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Miyazaki will also receive the designation.

Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima prefectures already have in place a quasi state of emergency through the end of January. The new designation would expand the affected region to 16 prefectures, including Tokyo. 

The number of new daily cases in Tokyo has surged from double digits going into January to 5,185 on Tuesday. The same day, Osaka confirmed a record 5,396 cases.

Kishida told reporters that Japan would set up temporary medical facilities and oxygen stations, increase the production of pulse oximeters and antigen test kits, and dispatch medical personnel to areas where the infection has spread.

"We'll respond with a high sense of caution to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed in the areas where COVID is rapidly spreading," he added, emphasizing an approach of taking countermeasures to prevent new infections rather than introducing extensive restrictions on socioeconomic activities.

Kishida said that he and his medical advisers acknowledged the risks that an increasing number of COVID patients, even if they have relatively minor symptoms, could disrupt social and economic systems as well as risking a rapid increase in seriously ill patients.

The prime minister added that his government would suspend the "vaccine-and-testing package" -- a program that allows those with proof of double vaccination or a negative test result to eat or drink in restaurants and bars in groups of five people or more.

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