TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan, so far spared the mass spread of coronavirus that has hit Europe and North America, took urgent new steps on Thursday to respond to what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described as a “national crisis” following a surge of cases in Tokyo.
With 47 new cases reported in the capital, Abe banned entry from 21 European countries and Iran, and set up a new crisis task force - a preliminary step towards declaring a state of emergency, although his government said none was planned.
“In order to overcome what can be described as a national crisis, it is necessary for the state, local governments, medical community, and the people to act as one and press ahead with measures against coronavirus infections,” Abe said at a task force meeting.
He said he had launched the task force under a recently revised law, after receiving a report of a high chance the chance the virus would spread widely.
The daily total of new cases in Tokyo has nearly tripled over the past four days. After meeting Abe on Thursday evening, governor Yuriko Koike told reporters that she had requested strong support and that Tokyo would work with the central government on a possible declaration of emergency.
Japan was an early focus of the coronavirus outbreak, and for a time last month a cruise ship docked offshore near Tokyo was the biggest source of infections outside China. But since then Japan has averted the widespread transmission that has seen Europe and North America hit by thousands of new cases per day.
Japanese authorities fear a rise in cases with no known source of infection could signal a bigger new wave.
“I told Prime Minister Abe there is a high risk of coronavirus spreading widely,” Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters after meeting Abe and Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
As of Thursday evening, Japan had 1,369 domestic cases of coronavirus, as well as 712 from the cruise ship, according to tallies from broadcaster NHK. There have been 46 domestic deaths and 10 from the cruise ship.
Under a law revised this month to cover the coronavirus, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease poses a “grave danger” to lives and if its rapid spread threatens serious economic damage.
That would give local authorities legal basis to ask residents and businesses to restrict movement and work. Nishimura, the economy minister, said no such declaration is planned for now.
Japan was already teetering on the brink of recession before the virus struck. On Thursday, the government offered its bleakest assessment on the economy in nearly seven years, saying conditions in March were “severe”.
Japanese shares tumbled on Thursday following three days of big gains, after the rise in domestic coronavirus cases stoked worries of tougher restrictions for social distancing.
Hitachi Ltd instructed 50,000 employees at its group companies in Tokyo to work from home and avoid unnecessary outings.
A landmark department store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district - popular with young people, many of whom have continued to go out to play and shop - said it would close on the weekend. Toho Cinemas also said it would close its movie theatres in Tokyo and nearby Kanagawa prefecture on Saturday and Sunday.
On Wednesday, Koike warned of the risk of an explosive rise in infections in the capital and asked residents to avoid non-essential outings through April 12, especially over the weekend. She repeated her call on Thursday.
Koike has requested the neighbouring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa ask their residents to refrain from non-urgent, non-essential travel to Tokyo, the Nikkei business daily reported. The governor of Kanagawa later asked residents to stay at home this weekend.
“The government and local authorities will cooperate based on the awareness that this is a very critical time to prevent the spread of the virus,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yosihide Suga told a news conference.
Suga later said the risk of the infection spreading was high, but there was no need to change a plan to reopen schools in early April. Many closed earlier this month at Abe’s request.
The International Olympic Committee and the government on Tuesday agreed to put back the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by a year.
If an emergency is declared, local governments will be able to halt gatherings and restrict movement, although there will be few powers to enforce such decrees. “For better or worse, no police at our doors,” said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Population Health at King’s College, London.
On a sunny three-day break last weekend, crowds of people were out in Tokyo despite bans in some areas on picnics for the traditional spring “hanami” cherry-blossom viewing. On Thursday, tabloids blared “Tokyo Lockdown Panic” and “Tokyo Destruction”.
But a long line of people waited at a chocolate croissant cafe in Tokyo for lunch, while subways were packed and people lined up before drug stores opened to buy masks and sanitary products that are in short supply. Pictures on social media showed grocery store shelves picked clean by shoppers.
Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki, Linda Sieg, Elaine Lies, Ju-min Park and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Robert Birsel and Peter Graff