Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to declare a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak in Japan, a government official said Monday, as a recent surge in infections sweeps Tokyo and other major cities.
The declaration is expected on Tuesday, and will take effect Wednesday, according to an administration source. Once declared, prefectural governors will be able to tell the public to stay at home and request the closure of schools and other facilities.
Abe is required to specify which areas will be targeted and for how long. Major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka will likely be targeted, the government official added.
The declaration, under a recently amended law, will come as Japan seeks to contain a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, which poses a significant risk to life and to the Japanese economy, the official said.
A growing number of cases in which transmission routes cannot be traced have raised the alarm. Abe has warned of an explosive surge if people let down their guard, having conceded that Japan was barely “holding the line” against the virus.
Pressure has been mounting for the declaration. Tokyo Gov Yuriko Koike and Osaka Gov Hirofumi Yoshimura had stepped up calls on Abe to make the declaration, while the Japan Medical Association has also sought the measure amid fears of a health care system collapse.
An emergency declaration, the first of its kind in Japan, would restrict individual rights, allowing prefectural governors to call for specific action to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even if a state of emergency is declared, citywide lockdowns, as seen in other countries hit hard by the coronavirus such as China and France, cannot be enforced under Japanese law. People will not be punished if they do not fall in line, neither can business activity be banned.
Abe cannot declare a state of emergency at his own discretion. He needs input from an advisory panel of experts in medicine and public health who will determine whether such a move is required.
Before formally declaring the state of emergency, the government is in principle required to inform parliament of its intention.
As of Sunday, the number of people with coronavirus in Japan stood at 4,563, including some 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with 104 deaths reported.
Tokyo confirmed 143 new infections Sunday, marking the city’s highest rate of daily increase and taking the capital’s total to 1,033.
To prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed and other widespread impacts, governors of areas subject to the declaration will be able to tell people to only go outside on essential errands such as grocery shopping, or if they are key workers in areas such as health care and public transport.
Governors can restrict the use — and request temporary closure — of places where large groups gather such as schools, social welfare facilities, theaters, music venues and sports stadiums.
In the event that hospitals become overrun and new ones need to be quickly set up, as has been the case elsewhere, such as in China and the United States, governors will be able to expropriate private land and buildings if rejected by their owners and users for no legitimate reason.
They can also requisition medical supplies and food from companies that refuse to sell them and punish those that hoard or do not comply. They can force firms to help transport emergency goods.
Abe gained the power to set in motion the process of establishing a state of emergency on March 13, when the Diet passed a revised version of a law enacted in response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The revision is effective for two years.
Recent requests by the prime minister for all schools to shut and for large sports and entertainment events to be canceled or postponed to prevent group transmission were made without the legal basis to enforce them.
One reason for the recent surge in infections is believed to be the importation of cases from abroad, prompting the government to implement an entry ban on foreign travelers that have recently been to one or more of 73 countries and regions.
Abe has promised the country’s “boldest-ever” stimulus measures to help struggling households and businesses amid the virus epidemic, more than the 56.8 trillion yen ($522 billion) package rolled out during the 2008 global financial crisis.
The government is putting together the stimulus, which will include cash handouts to struggling households, with the possibility of a state of emergency declaration in mind. It may be finalized on Tuesday.
Economists expect Japan, already reeling from a consumption tax hike last October, to have fallen into recession during the January-March quarter due to the impact of the pandemic.