TOKYO - Japan was set on Thursday to expand emergency restrictions to eight more prefectures to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases, as worries deepen about strains on the nation's medical system in Olympics host Tokyo and around the country.
Coronavirus infections are surging faster than ever before as new cases hit record highs in Tokyo, overshadowing the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics and fueling doubts over Prime Minister Yasuhide Suga's handling of the pandemic.
Tokyo reported a record 4,166 new cases on Wednesday while nationwide new cases topped 14,000.
"New infections are rising at an unprecedently fast pace," Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura told a panel of experts at which he made the new proposal.
"The situation on the ground (at hospitals) is extremely severe," Nishimura added, noting that serious cases had doubled in the past two weeks.
The panel signed off on the proposal, but Nishimura told a news conference some members had warned the situation was severe enough to require a nationwide state of emergency - a stance shared by the head of the Japan Medical Association.
Six prefectures including Olympic host city Tokyo are already under full states of emergency to last through Aug. 31 while another five are under less strict "quasi-emergency" directives.
The latest steps, to take effect from Sunday, mean that more than 70% of the population will be under some restrictions.
The government says the Olympics has not caused the latest surge but experts say holding the Games now has sent a mixed message to an already weary public about the need to stay home.
Games organizers on Thursday reported 31 new Games-related COVID-19 cases, bringing the total since July 1 to 353.
It remains to be seen whether the latest COVID-19 restrictions, which are mostly voluntary, will have much impact as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads and people grow weary of staying home.
"I do not think that more (quasi-emergency steps) will make much difference - (it's) simply a political statement," said Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King's College London.
The latest expansion follows a sharp backlash against Suga's plan to limit hospitalization of COVID-19 patients to those who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so, while others are told to isolate at home.
The shift in policy is intended to address a hospital bed crunch, but critics say it will lead to an increase in deaths since the condition of patients can worsen rapidly.
In response to calls from within and outside his ruling coalition to reverse the policy, Suga told reporters on Wednesday that the change was aimed at regions with a surge in COVID-19 cases, such as Tokyo, and was not nationally uniform.
Suga promised to explain the shift and seek public understanding. But the backlash is a blow to the premier, whose support rates have already slid to record lows ahead of a ruling party leadership race and general election later this year.
Japan has recorded more than 952,000 COVID-19 cases and over 15,200 deaths. Just under 31% of residents are fully vaccinated.