Japan is set to lift all coronavirus emergency measures when they expire later this week as the infections slow and the nation tries to reactivate its economy.
Officials in charge of coronavirus measures got endorsement from experts at a meeting Tuesday, on the condition easing of restrictions will be gradual. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to announce a lifting of the emergency and subsequent plans later Tuesday.
With the lifting, Japan will be entirely free of any emergency requirements for the first time since April. Government officials are preparing for the relaxed restrictions by instituting other plans such as vaccine passports and virus tests.
The emergency and other measures in all 27 prefectures expire at the end of September. Some experts want the state of emergency in 19 areas to be eased to a quasi-emergency first to ensure infections don’t quickly rebound, and the government is reportedly considering the strategy.
The emergency has mainly been in the form of requests for restaurants and bars to open for shorter hours and not serve alcohol. Governors in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto have said they plan to keep those requests in place while closely monitoring the virus situations.
Japan is eager to expand social and economic activities while balancing the need to prevent the next wave of infections. The government, which is in transition as the governing party chooses a replacement for Suga later this week, is under pressure to maintain effective virus strategies ahead of parliamentary elections in two months.
Economy and Fiscal Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, also in charge of COVID-19 measures, said easing of the measures will will gradual as cooler weather raises concern about a resurgence.
Eateries and other commercial establishments currently required to close early should return to normal hours gradually while the authorities reinforce health care systems to prepare for the next outbreak, officials said.
“Lifting of the emergency doesn’t mean we are 100% free,” Dr. Shigeru Omi, top medical adviser for the government, told reporters. “The government should send a clear message to the people that we can only relax gradually.”
He urged the authorities to quickly tighten controls when there are early signs of resurgence ahead of holiday periods.
Japan’s ongoing and fifth state of emergency declared in April was repeatedly extended and expanded, turning into the longest since the pandemic began last year. Despite public weariness and frustration over the measures, Japan has managed to avoid the more restrictive lockdowns imposed elsewhere while recording about 1.69 million cases of infections started to worsen in July and peaked in mid-August after the Olympics, surging above 5,000 cases in Tokyo alone and topping 25,000 nationwide. Thousands of patients unable to find hospital beds had to ride out the illness at home.
Olympics and government officials deny the games directly caused the upsurge, but experts said the festive atmosphere made people more socially active and it was indirectly responsible.
Suga decided to step down from party leadership and the premiership after facing criticism over his government’s virus measures and his insistence on holding the Olympics during a pandemic despite public opposition.
Daily reported cases have fallen to around 2,000 nationwide — less than one-tenth of the mid-August peak. Experts attributed the declining numbers to the progress of vaccinations — 56% of the population is fully vaccinated — and to people increasing their social distancing efforts after being alarmed by the collapse of medical systems.
Vaccinations minister Taro Kono recently said Japan is also preparing to start administering boosters — a third shot for those who have already received two — to medial personnel by the end of this year and to elderly people early next year.