Restrictions set to be imposed under Japan’s state of emergency could last months, with both government advisers and critics of its strategy calling for broader steps than current proposals.
Japan is set to declare an emergency as early as Thursday in Tokyo and three surrounding areas, with relatively narrow restrictions focused on reducing infections at bars and restaurants. But as in spring, the declaration may drag on if those moves fail to change people’s behavior, experts contend.
Lifting the state of emergency in less than a month would be “next to impossible,” Shigeru Omi, the head of the panel of experts advising the government, said on Tuesday. “It’ll need a little longer — March or April, I’m not sure.”
Cases nationwide topped 5,000 for the first time on Wednesday, with Tokyo among a host of regions that saw record one-day increases. The ongoing surge will pose further challenges to the effectiveness of the expected measures.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has called for a more focused state of emergency than that which devastated the economy last spring. He’s seeking to tackle the spread of coronavirus infections at restaurants that have been a primary source of the current surge, while limiting the scope of the restrictions to reduce the economic harm.
Despite saying that a rerun of the spring emergency wasn’t necessary, Omi called for moves that would boost the effectiveness of restrictions on eateries, including encouraging remote work. Suga has at times given short shrift to the panel’s recommendations, particularly over a travel subsidy program that continued to run even as the current wave surged.
While restrictions are envisioned to last for a month, the government plans to set in advance the specific conditions for lifting the emergency, with areas needing to return to “Stage 3” on a tiered system that measures criteria such as infection numbers and hospital conditions, the Nikkei reported.
Omi’s calls were echoed by Hiroshi Nishiura, an expert in mathematical modeling of infectious diseases at Kyoto University who was instrumental in defining the “Three C’s” strategy to avoid the places infections were most likely to spread.
“At a minimum it will take close to two months” to bring things under control, he told public broadcaster NHK. Nishiura published a model predicting that limiting steps to bars and restaurants would not sufficiently reduce the transmission number and would instead keep cases at their current level. Steps similar to the first state of emergency would cut cases in Tokyo to fewer than 100 by the end of February, according to the model.
Kentaro Iwata, a Japanese infectious disease expert who has clashed heads with policy makers before, also said broader steps were required.
“The layers of infections have already spread too much, and intervening in restaurants isn’t an effective policy,” he wrote on Twitter. “The worst thing to do would be to have a watered-down state of emergency.”
Iwata drew headlines in February for suggesting Tokyo may become a “second Wuhan” and called for a full lockdown to control the virus in spring, a step which ultimately proved unnecessary.
While the government is keen to avoid those broader steps, in doing so it runs the same risk that countries in Europe found when attempting to impose a “lockdown lite” in autumn. Japan is entering the current state of emergency with infections in Tokyo averaging nearly 1,000 over the past seven days, though cases per capita are still less than a 10th of those seen in the U.K., which has also returned to its strictest lockdown.
Japan won praise for its early tackling of the virus, relying on public cooperation as its constitution makes European-style enforced lockdowns impossible. While critics at the time contended the steps were too light, the country ultimately exited the state of emergency in just six weeks, and avoided a second one during a summer surge.
Many factors this time are different. Japan left the first emergency just as the summer was beginning. But January and February are the coldest months of the year in the Tokyo region, making ventilation more difficult and providing a more preferable environment for the disease — something other nations such as South Korea have also had to contend with.
The country may also struggle to enlist public cooperation the same way it did in spring. Officials have fretted that public concern over the virus was dropping, while many bars and restaurants, already pushed to the edge over the past year, may be reluctant to cooperate with requests to close.