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Japan has declared a third coronavirus-related state of emergency for Tokyo and three western prefectures, just three months ahead of the Olympics.

Key points:

  • Authorities say the virus strain first identified in the UK is spreading
  • Emergency measures have been criticised as too weak 
  • Japan’s PM says the IOC is keeping the Olympics going ahead

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced the emergency for Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo from April 25 through May 11, as the coronavirus variant first identified in the UK spreads in the four prefectures.

Daily infections in Japan briefly dipped in March, but have since risen to exceed 5,000 by Wednesday.

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Osaka recorded 1,162 new COVID-19 cases Friday, while Tokyo had 759.

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The step is largely intended to be “short and intensive” to stop people from traveling and spreading the virus during Japan’s “Golden Week” holidays, from late April through the first week of May, Mr Suga said.

“I sincerely apologise for causing trouble for many people again,” said Mr Suga, who earlier had pledged to do his utmost to prevent a third emergency.

This latest state of emergency comes only a month after an earlier emergency ended in the Tokyo area.

Experts, municipal leaders call for stronger prevention measures

Restaurants are obliged to operate with shorterned hours under the state of emergency.

Japan, which has had about half a million cases and 10,000 deaths, has not enforced lockdowns.

Mask-wearing, staying home and other COVID-safe measures for the public remain non-mandatory, and experts worry if they will be followed.

The state of emergency now allows prefectural governors to issue binding orders for businesses to shorten hours or close in exchange for daily compensation of up to 200,000 yen ($2,393), while imposing fines of up to 300,000 yen ($3,589) for violators.

There are also shutdown requirements for bars, department stores, shopping centres, theme parks, theatres and museums.

Schools will stay open, but universities are asked to return to online classes.

But people are becoming impatient and less cooperative and have largely ignored the ongoing measures as infections have accelerated.

This has prompted experts and local leaders to urgently call for tougher steps. 

Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura, who on Tuesday requested the emergency, said the semi-emergency measures were not working and hospitals were overflowing with patients.

COVID-19 treatment is largely limited to a handful of public-run hospitals, while many small private institutions are not assisting or even prepared to mobilise for infectious diseases.

The Japanese Government has also been criticised for a slow vaccine rollout, with only a tiny fraction of the population innoculated.

Mr Suga said he would ensure enough vaccines are delivered to local municipalities so all of the country’s 36 million senior citizens can receive their second shots by the end of July — a month behind an earlier schedule.

Suga says IOC is the reason why the Olympics is still going ahead

Japan has already postponed its Olympics by a year because of the pandemic.(AP: Thanassis Stavrakis)

The May 11 deadline for the latest round of emergency measures occurs ahead of an expected visit by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, triggering speculation that the government is prioritsing the Olympic schedule over people’s health.

Mr Suga said Japan had no choice but to follow the IOC decision to hold the games.

“We aim to hold the games while taking strong measures to protect people’s lives from the further spread of infections.”

Mr Suga had earlier tried to prevent another state of emergency.(AP: Koji Sasahara)

Mr Suga has been reluctant to hurt the already pandemic-damaged economy and faced criticism for being slow to take virus measures.

Japan’s inoculation campaign lags behind many countries, with imported vaccines in short supply while its attempts to develop its own vaccines are still in the early stages.

Inoculations started in mid-February but progress has been slow amid shortages of vaccines and healthcare workers.

The rapid increase in patients flooding hospitals has raised concerns of a further staff shortage and delay in vaccinations.

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