Japan is to extend a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and three other areas until at least the end of the month in an attempt to arrest a surge in cases less than 80 days before the start of the Olympics.
The economy minister, Yasutoshi Nishimura, conceded on Friday that targeted measures introduced at the end of last month that were due to end on 11 May had failed to check a dramatic rise in infections.
Restaurants serving alcohol and large shops in the capital, along with Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures have been asked to close – with fines imposed on these who fail to comply – while “dry” establishments are encouraged to close at 8pm.
Residents have been advised to avoid non-essential outings, but analysis of foot traffic suggests that many people are unwilling, or unable, to stay home.
Japan has reported 620,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, and 10,600 deaths – the highest in east Asia. While cases have fallen in Tokyo in recent days, the drop has been attributed to far fewer tests than usual being conducted during the Golden Week holidays, which ended on Wednesday.
“Based on the analyses from various angles, my thinking is that we need an extension of the state of emergency,” Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, said.
Osaka – currently the epicentre of Japan’s fourth Covid-19 wave – has run out of hospital beds for patients with serious symptoms and is in “quite a dangerous situation,” Nishimura said at the start of a meeting with medical experts. Several people in the prefecture have died of home while waiting for treatment, according to reports.
The prefectures of Aichi and Fukuoka will be added to the list of areas placed under the strictest measures, with Hokkaido and two other areas put under a “quasi” state of emergency.
The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who has come under fire for his response to the latest outbreak and Japan’s slow vaccine rollout, is due to hold a press conference after the measures have been formally approved later on Friday.
The latest attempt to bring case numbers down comes a day after Pfizer/BioNTech announced they had reached an agreement with the International Olympic Committee [IOC] to offer vaccinations to athletes taking part in this summer’s Games in Tokyo who are unable to receive jabs as part of their home country’s rollout.
The announcement drew criticism on social media, amid reports that members of the host nation’s Olympic team would also be offered doses.
An online petition calling for the Games to be cancelled has attracted almost 200,000 signatures in the space of a couple of days.
“We strongly call for the prevention of spread of coronavirus and protection of lives and livelihoods by using available resources to stop the Olympics,” said Kenji Utsunomiya, a prominent lawyer and former candidate for Tokyo governor who organised the petition.
Japan started its vaccine rollout in mind-February but has yet to finish inoculating medical workers and has barely starting administering jabs to people aged 65 and over. So far about 2% of the population has received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the only vaccine to have been approved by the health ministry.
The IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers agreed to ban overseas sports fans from attending the Games but have put off a decision on Japanese spectators until next month.
The torch relay, which has been banned from public roads in several locations due to virus fears, faces further disruption. On Thursday, the governor of Fukuoka prefecture said it would be difficult to host the event over two days next week while the area was subject to emergency measures.