TOKYO – The government of Japan lifted on Thursday the state of emergency linked to COVID-19 in three prefectures, although the measure will continue to be enforced in Tokyo and four other areas where the number of infections has not dropped sufficiently.
“We are lifting the state of emergency declaration for Osaka, Kyoto, and Hyogo prefectures,” President Shinzo Abe told reporters, according to state broadcaster NHK.
He said the decision was taken after evaluating the situation along with a committee of experts.
The announcement signals the return of normalcy in the three prefectures, all situated in the Kansai region on Japan’s main island Honshu, and takes the total number of prefectures where the emergency has been lifted to 42, more than a month after the government extended it to all 47 prefectures.
However, Tokyo and the nearby prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Kanagawa as well as the northern island of Hokkaido will remain under emergency restrictions such as citizens being advised not to leave their houses and the continued closure of various businesses and public spaces.
The government had already decided to lift the emergency in 39 prefectures on May 14 after they reported a marked decrease in the number of infections, leaving out the more populated regions such as Tokyo and Osaka.
The capital has so far reported around 5,000 cases of COVID-19, and forms the biggest chunk of the nationwide tally of 17,000 and the national death toll of around 800. However, in recent weeks the number of fresh cases has stabilized in the capital region.
Abe said that the number of new infections in Tokyo was “steadily declining” and the “strain on the medical system was easing,” the two main criteria the authorities have used to lift the emergency.
“We will ask experts to evaluate the situation early next week, likely on Monday. If the situation remains the same, we may be able to lift the declaration for those prefectures,” the prime minister said.
One of the objective criteria established by the government’s task force to lift restrictions is that fresh infections should not have crossed 0.5 cases per 100,000 residents within the last week.
Tokyo, a city with a population of around 14 million, has been registering around a dozen new infections every day for the last week, and could meet the requirement for lifting the emergency by next week if the trend continues.
Abe thanked the people for cooperating and helping contain the epidemic by not leaving their homes and promised to speed up the distribution of economic aid to all the businesses which have had to shut down.
As the country aims to return to normalcy, the government has released a series of guidelines with preventive measures against fresh infections, such as recommending the use of face-masks at work stations and installation of transparent screens in public service places, apart from other social distancing measures.
The prime minister said that the government was working to increase and widen the number of tests among the population, including a new rapid system to test antigens – viral proteins – in order to prepare for a fresh wave of infections.