TOKYO — Japan’s government announced on Tuesday that a state of coronavirus emergency would end this week to help rejuvenate the economy as infections slowed.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the state of emergency would end on Thursday and virus restrictions would be gradually eased to allow daily life to resume despite the virus’ presence. He said the government would create more temporary COVID-19 treatment facilities and continue vaccinations to prepare for any future resurgence.
Suga said government officials are also launching other schemes such as vaccine passports and virus testing.
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With the lifting, Japan will be free of emergency requirements for the first time in more than six months.
Japan’s current state of emergency, declared in April, has been repeatedly extended and expanded. Despite public fatigue and frustration over the measures, Japan has managed to escape the more restrictive lockdowns imposed elsewhere, recording nearly 1.69 million cases and 17,500 deaths from COVID-19.
The emergency mainly included requests for restaurants and bars to reduce their hours and not serve alcohol. The governors of Tokyo, Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto have said they plan to keep those requests while closely monitoring the virus situation.
Japan is eager to expand social and economic activity while balancing the need to prevent another wave of infections. The government, which is in transition as the governing party chooses a replacement for Suga later this week, is under pressure to maintain an effective virus strategy ahead of parliamentary elections in two months.
Officials said eateries and other commercial establishments currently requesting early closure should gradually return to their normal hours, while officials bolster health care systems.
“The removal of the emergency does not mean that we are 100% free,” Dr. Shigeru Omi, the government’s top medical adviser, told reporters. “The government should give a clear message to the people that we can only relax gradually.”
He urged officials to quickly tighten controls if there are early signs of a resurgence ahead of the holiday period.
Infections began to worsen in July and peaked in mid-August after the Tokyo Olympics, rising above 5,000 daily cases in Tokyo alone and above 25,000 nationwide. Thousands of patients who did not get beds in the hospital had to recover from the disease at home.
Olympic and government officials deny that the Games directly caused the boom, but experts say the festive atmosphere made people more socially active and were indirectly responsible.
Suga decided to step down from party leadership and as premier after facing criticism over his government’s virus measures and insisting on holding the Olympics during the pandemic despite public protests.
Daily reported cases have fallen nationwide to nearly 2,000 – less than a tenth of mid-August. Experts attributed dwindling numbers to vaccination progress – 58% of the population has been fully vaccinated – and people have stepped up their social distancing efforts after worrying about the collapse of medical systems.
Immunization Minister Taro Kono recently said Japan was preparing to start administering boosters to medical workers by the end of this year and to the elderly early next year – a third shot for those who have already Have received two.