Japan is poised to announce a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other regions as the country’s coronavirus crisis escalates.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the measures will be announced in detail Tuesday and will include increased social distancing but stop short of hard lockdowns of the kind in place in Europe.
Abe also said the government is preparing a $990billion stimulus package to help the country’s economy through the crisis, including cash payouts to households.
Japan was one of the first countries to be hit by coronavirus outside of China but reported few new cases and deaths until recent weeks, when both began spiking.
Abe said experts on a government-commissioned task force urged him to prepare to declare a state of emergency, which will cover Tokyo, neighbouring Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, the western hub of Osaka and neighbouring Hyogo, as well as the southwestern region of Fukuoka.
Tokyo has been hardest-hit by the surge in cases, with hospitals there saying they are already overburdened by the sudden surge.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the city will start transferring patients with no or slight symptoms from hospitals to hotels and other accommodations to make room for an influx of patients with severe symptoms.
Japan’s health ministry has confirmed 3,654 cases of the coronavirus, including 84 deaths from the disease.
That figure does not include another 712 infections and 11 fatalities on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in the port of Yokohama near Tokyo earlier this year.
The state of emergency will empower governors in affected regions to call for restrictions on movement and commerce but offers little in the way of enforcement.
Governors can ask people to stay inside – something Tokyo’s governor has effectively already done by asking people to limit unnecessary outings and work from home.
It also allows governors to call for businesses that attract large numbers of people, like entertainment venues or department stores, to close their doors.
But there are no punishments for those who defy the request, nor any other enforcement mechanisms.
Public transport is expected to continue running, though possibly on a more limited basis. Shops and other business may remain open.
The strongest power accorded governors is the ability to commandeer buildings or land for medical purposes.
This could mean requiring landowners to turn over property to build temporary medical facilities, or businesses to free up space for housing patients.
Governors can also close public institutions like schools, many of which have been shuttered since February after Abe urged a nationwide shutdown.
While the measure does not contain strong enforcement measures, expectations are that most individuals and businesses will comply.
Many people have already heeded calls to work from home, with Tokyo’s notoriously crowded transport system noticeably emptier in recent weeks.
And a request from the Tokyo governor for people to stay home on weekends has also resulted in significantly quieter streets, even in the sunny final days of cherry blossom season.
Japan’s legal system, influenced by the legacy of wartime excesses, limits the government’s power over its citizens.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of the law implementing the state of emergency, said residents would be asked, not ordered.
“Our legal system is set up so that people as a whole unite and share the burden of preventing the spread of infection,” rather than resorting to forcible measures, he said in parliament on Monday.
And there are signs the public is on board, with a poll published by private broadcaster TBS on Monday showing 80 per cent of participants supported a declaration of emergency.
The state of emergency measure comes from a revised 2012 bill intended to slow the spread of new strains of flu.
The declaration can only be made if certain conditions are met, including that a virus is spreading rapidly and having a significant impact on the lives of citizens and the economy.
To make such a determination, Abe is required to consult a task force convened for the purpose last month, which includes legal experts and medical professionals.