Japan to lift COVID quasi-emergency measures in all prefectures on Monday

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday that the government plans to fully lift the COVID-19 quasi-emergency measures currently covering 18 of the country’s 47 prefectures when they expire on Monday.

“Daily new cases nationwide have become about half the number of their peak, and the hospital bed occupancy rate (for COVID-19 patients) and the number of those recovering at home are continuing to decline, although there may be some differences among regions,” Kishida said during a news conference. “The exit of the sixth wave is clearly in sight.”

The government’s coronavirus task force will formally approve the decision on Thursday.

But Kishida is still taking a cautious stance, saying the death rate and the percentage of patients developing severe symptoms are higher for COVID-19 compared to the flu. Oral treatment drugs are still limited for the general population while there is still the possibility of the virus to mutate, he said.

“Given all this, the coming days will be a transition period toward normal times — a period to still be on high alert but restoring normalcy as much as possible,” Kishida said.

The government also plans to expand subsidies for local travel on April 1, in a prelude to the possible resumption of its Go To Travel campaign aimed at supporting the pandemic-hit domestic tourism sector.

The subsidies currently cover trips within each prefecture, but they will also apply to travel across prefectural borders that remain within a regional block, Kishida said.

The move comes after the 18 prefectures decided not to seek a quasi-emergency extension. Of them, Osaka Prefecture was the last to make the decision.

The Kishida government eased the criteria for lifting the emergency last week, citing an increase in the number of vaccinated people, the low risk of severe illness posed by the omicron variant and the need to fully resume economic activities to boost the economy.

The new criteria will allow the government to lift the emergency if the burden on health care services seems poised to decrease even if numbers of new infections remain at high levels.

Tokyo confirmed 10,221 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, after five consecutive days of tallies below 10,000.

“We have met the state-set requirements for ending quasi-emergency measures in all indicators,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said in a request to the central government Tuesday. “We’re not in a situation to extend the measures.”

Osaka Prefecture also decided not to ask the government to extend the measures for the prefecture, as the number of new cases has been declining even as the occupancy rate for hospital beds for coronavirus patients remains high.

Quasi-emergency measures have been in place in as many as 36 prefectures at one point since early January, when they were first imposed following the start of the domestic spread of the omicron coronavirus variant.

The government aims to decide when to resume its Go To Travel campaign after checking how expanding the subsidy program affects the country’s infection situation.

With many business operators in the tourism industry pinning hopes on the Go To Travel campaign, the Kishida administration is apparently trying to resume it at an early point in order to win support for the ruling coalition in this summer’s House of Councilors election.

The Go To Travel campaign was launched in July 2020 but suspended in December the same year due to a resurgence of the coronavirus.

In April 2021, the government started offering financial aid to support the prefectural subsidies for local trips in areas with low levels of infections.

While expanding the local trip subsidies, the central government plans to bolster infection prevention measures, such as requiring tourists to present COVID-19 vaccination records and use COVID-19 testing kits.

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