Japan weighs full lifting of COVID-19 quasi-emergency

The central government is considering fully lifting its COVID-19 quasi-emergency currently covering 18 of the country’s 47 prefectures when they expire on March 21, informed sources said Saturday.

The 18 prefectures include Tokyo, Osaka and Aichi. The government expects occupancy rates for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients, which remain at high levels mainly in major cities, to drop.

As of Thursday, the number of new COVID-19 infection cases fell week on week in 15 of the 18 prefectures, showing signs that the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant is subsiding.

“Toward an exit from the sixth wave of infection, it will be important to consider measures while keeping in mind their balance with maintaining social and economic activities,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a news conference Friday.

If the government decides to fully remove the quasi-emergency designations, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to announce the decision at a news conference as early as Wednesday, the sources said.

The bed occupancy rates remain above 50% in Chiba, Kanagawa, Aichi, Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

An advisory panel of experts said Friday that quasi-emergency measures can be removed even if the bed occupancy rates are higher than 50% as long as new infection cases are on the decline, opening the way for the measures to be fully lifted.

The Kishida administration now aims to further reopen the economy in time for the spring school graduation and entrance season and ahead of this summer’s Upper House election.

An increasing number of experts, who have often acted as a brake on reopening, are supporting the full removal of the quasi-emergency measures, citing the negative effects of halting social activities as well as the characteristics of the omicron variant, which causes relatively minor symptoms.

However, there is concern over the spread of the BA.2 omicron subvariant. Some warn that the removal of the quasi-emergency before spring break may cause a rebound in infections.

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