Suga considers new state of emergency for Tokyo amid Covid resurgence

Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has said the government is considering declaring a state of emergency in the greater Tokyo region amid a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in and around the capital.

Suga, whose handling of the pandemic has seen his approval ratings plummet in recent weeks, has come under pressure to take action to address the recent surge in infections.

At the weekend, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, and the governors of nearby Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama prefectures urged the government to declare a localised state of emergency.

Suga’s administration, however, is reluctant to introduce any measures that could harm the world’s third-biggest economy, which has rebounded after the first state of emergency brought many businesses to a standstill due to sharp falls in shopping and spending on travel and entertainment.

His predecessor, Shinzo Abe, declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and several other parts of the country in April that was later expanded nationwide during the first wave of Covid-19 infections.

Concern is mounting that record cases in Tokyo will soon place an unmanageable strain on the city’s hospitals.

The city reported a record 1,337 cases last Thursday; on Sunday, the number of people with severe symptoms rose to 101, just four fewer than the highest total seen in late April.

Tokyo is by far the worst affected of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and, along with three neighbouring prefectures, accounted for more than half the nationwide total on Sunday.

While Suga consults government health experts, bars and restaurants in Tokyo could be asked to close by 8pm from later this week as an interim measure, the Kyodo news agency said, adding that establishments that followed the advice would be eligible for compensation.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga held a New Year’s press conference at his official residence in Tokyo on Monday Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AP

Suga conceded that current advice to close at 10pm had failed to have an impact in Tokyo, but noted that similar measures appeared to be working in the cities of Sapporo and Osaka.

“Even during the three days of the New Year’s holiday, cases didn’t go down in the greater Tokyo area,” Suga told reporters on Monday. “We felt that a stronger message was needed.”

It isn’t clear what form a second state of emergency would take. In the spring, non-essential businesses and schools were asked to close and people were encouraged to avoid non-essential outings. Japan’s local and national authorities do not have the legal powers to enforce European-style lockdowns.

Japan has experienced far fewer cases and deaths than the US and many parts of Europe, but the recent wave of infections – plus the discovery of a new, more contagious variant of Covid-19 – has raised doubts about Tokyo’s ability to host the Olympics in 200 days’ time.

Suga recently insisted the already postponed Games, due to open on 23 July, would go ahead, but opinion polls show a majority of people believe they should be cancelled or postponed again. Tokyo 2020 organisers and the International Olympic Committee have agreed that a second postponement is not an option.

Tokyo accounted for 816 of the 3,100 new infections reported in Japan on Sunday, bringing the city’s total caseload to 62,590.