Japan to raise virus steps in Tokyo, three months ahead of Games

Japan is set to strengthen anti-virus measures in Tokyo to curb the rapid spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant.

Yuriko Koike at the opening ceremony ahead of the start of the Olympic torch relay, in Naraha, Fukushima, on March 25.   -  Getty Images

Japan is set to strengthen anti-virus measures in Tokyo on Friday to curb the rapid spread of a more contagious coronavirus variant just three months before the Olympics begin in the capital where most people are not yet vaccinated. Experts on a government panel gave preliminary approval to the emergency measures that would include binding orders in Tokyo, in Kyoto in western Japan and in the southern island prefecture of Okinawa.

The measures expected to be announced later on Friday by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would start Monday and last until early May. The step comes less than three weeks after Tokyo exited a state of emergency that had included non-binding requests for business owners for shorter hours and for the residents to be mindful of basic preventive measures.

The virus upsurge in Tokyo underscores the difficulty of balancing anti-virus measures and the economy.

Suga's government has been criticised for acting too slow on virus measures out of reluctance to damage the already pandemic-hit economy. The new measures allow prefectural leaders to target specific cities and issue binding orders, which Suga says is aimed at preventing another state of emergency.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said she is alarmed by the pace of the recent rise in virus cases and the possible impact of the new variants.

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On Thursday, Koike called for the residents to avoid non-essential trips, social distancing and other basic measures. She is also expected to issue an 8 p.m. closure order for bars and restaurants. The added steps would come days after the government designated Osaka for the new binding anti-virus measures because of a resurgence blamed on the spread of the variant.

Osaka has declared a medical emergency after its hospitals became overwhelmed with new cases and has taken next week's Olympic torch relay off the public roads. With Japan's vaccination drive still at an early stage — just over 1 million, or less than 1 percent of its population have received their first of the two shots — the surge may cause further rerouting or cancellations of Olympic related events.

Inoculations started in mid-February with medical workers, and elderly people are scheduled to get their shots starting next week through late June. The rest of the population will likely have to wait until around July, making it almost impossible for Japan to reach so-called herd immunity before the Tokyo Olympics begin on July 23.

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