The Japanese government on Wednesday expanded quasi-emergency measures to 13 more prefectures, including Tokyo, in a bid to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
The restrictions initially imposed in only three regions–Okinawa, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima–took effect on Friday until Feb. 13. Governors are allowed to shorten business hours and limit the serving of alcohol in the prefectures.
“We are battling against an unknown virus, and I hope that we can overcome this situation with sufficient preparation and without excessive fear,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a meeting.
The country’s daily infection count surpassed 30,000 for the first time on Tuesday, with government officials attributing the increase to Omicron infections in the country.
The 13 additional regions include Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, Aichi, Gifu, Mie, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Kagawa, Niigata, and Gunma.
Prior to the announcement, Kishida said the move was deemed necessary by experts to ensure that the medical system is “solidly in place” to respond to the growing number of patients with mild symptoms who are recuperating at home.
“We will continue to act in close cooperation with individual prefectures and maintain a high level of vigilance as we engage in our responses to ensuring that the established system will run properly and preventing the availability of hospital beds from coming under extreme strain in areas where infections are spreading rapidly,” he noted.
Tokyo’s occupancy rate of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, a figure closely monitored by authorities, rose to 25.9 percent on Wednesday. An increase to 50 percent would warrant escalation to a full state of emergency, officials have said.
Japan has declared a state of emergency four times during the pandemic, and vaccinated about 80 percent of its population of 126 million, although its booster dose program has reached just 1.2 percent.
The Japanese government has also extended its entry ban on foreign visitors until the end of February, allowing only local citizens and foreign residents to re-enter Japan on a daily basis limited to 3,500 arrivals.
Meanwhile, a panel of experts under the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on nations to ease travel bans and abolish mandatory vaccination for entry into countries, suggesting to consider “a risk-based approach,” such as testing and quarantine requirements.
Blanket travel bans are “not effective in suppressing international spread (as clearly demonstrated by the Omicron experience), and may discourage transparent and rapid reporting of emerging [variant of concern],” WHO said in its recommendation.
“Lift or ease international traffic bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced by States Parties,” it stated.
Reuters contributed to this report.