Speaking at a New Year press conference Monday, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said an emergency declaration was being considered, and would apply to Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa. The governors of all four regions have all urged Suga to do so already, as cases rise.
“lf necessary, we won’t hesitate to dispatch the medical staff from Self Defense Force,” Suga added, saying the government will support medical facilities to ensure they are not overwhelmed.
Suga did not say when the government would make a decision, or what restrictions could be enacted. Japan’s first state of emergency, declared last spring, relatively early in the pandemic, lasted more than a month, and saw schools and non-essential businesses closed.
On Sunday, Japan recorded 3,150 new cases, and 51 deaths, bringing the national total to 244,559, with over 3,612 fatalities. The greater Tokyo region has been among the worst hit, with 816 new cases Sunday after last Thursday recording a new single-day record of 1,337.
Japan was one of the first countries hit by the pandemic, but the government was able to keep cases at bay by enacting stringent border controls, investing efforts in contact tracing and pushing its citizens to practice social distancing. The efforts had been largely successful, with Japan able to avoid the type of strict lockdowns enacted in other parts of the world.
Japanese health officials have continuously urged citizens to reduce their daily activities, remain vigilant and only dine out in small numbers, but that no longer appears to be enough to stop the pandemic from spreading.
“Japan’s response is too slow and confusing, which reflects the lack of leadership and strategy. On one hand they encouraged domestic travel and eating out, on the other they just asked people to take caution,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London. “The government is basically asking people voluntarily to behave properly, but does not do more than that.”
Whether and how many foreign spectators will be able to attend the Olympics is due to be sorted out in Spring.
Suga has promised to “take the initiative” in vaccination, and said Monday that a successful Olympics would serve as “proof that human beings have overcome the coronavirus.”
Junko Ogura reported from Tokyo, Japan, James Griffiths reported from Hong Kong. CNN’s Joshua Berlinger and Selina Wang contributed reporting.