Japan was expected to lift a state of emergency across a large part of the country on Thursday, but the capital Tokyo will remain under restrictions until there is a convincing containment of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to hold a news conference at 6 p.m. (0900 GMT) where media said he is expected to announce the lifting of the state of emergency for 39 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, but not including Tokyo.
The world’s third-largest economy declared a nationwide state of emergency a month ago, urging citizens to reduce person-to-person contact by 80% in an effort to slow the pace of new infections and ease the strain on medical services. The government had said it would reassess the situation in mid-May.
The declaration gives governors added authority to tell people to stay home and close schools and businesses, but there is no penalty for non-compliance.
Some non-essential businesses even in hard-hit areas have already started to reopen ahead of the government’s review, and the scope of restrictions has varied across the country.
Abe, like leaders everywhere, is striving to strike a balance between damage to the economy from prolonged shutdowns and the need to contain the virus.
The government is set to add four economists to its advisory panel for combating the epidemic, and another review will be conducted again in about a week.
Economists said any normalisation would be gradual as the government treads cautiously with an eye on a possible second wave of infections such as seen in countries such as South Korea and China.
“The focus is whether the government will lift the emergency on the big areas such as Tokyo and Osaka before the end of May, as was initially planned,” said Atsushi Takeda, chief economist at Itochu Research Institute.
“If it does, economic recovery will likely be faster than previously estimated.”
The 39 prefectures account for 54% of Japan’s population, while the greater Tokyo area that will remain under the state of emergency represents about a third of the economy.
“Tokyo is the heart of the Japanese economy. It’s like driving a car with three wheels,” said Jesper Koll, chief executive of asset manager WisdomTree Japan.
Fast Retailing Co, owner of casual clothing chain Uniqlo, which had already started to reopen outlets across the country, said it planned further reopenings from Friday after the state of emergency is lifted.
Japan has reported 16,100 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, excluding those from a cruise ship previously quarantined in Yokohama, and 696 deaths to date from the disease it causes, COVID-19, according to public broadcaster NHK.
While Japan has avoided the kind of explosive growth seen in the United States and elsewhere, its testing has also been among the lowest, at 188 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per 100,000 people, versus 3,159 in Italy and 3,044 in Germany.
Hardest-hit Tokyo has conducted just 50,000 tests so far, of which about 5,000 were positive.
Although Japan’s state of emergency declaration lacks enforcement powers, mobility data has shown a marked drop in the movement of people.
The government this week reported a 20% fall in the number of hospitalised COVID-19 patients in the nine days to May 7, to 4,449. In Tokyo, new cases fell to just 10 on Wednesday.
Osaka, Japan’s second-biggest metropolis, is also set to remain a target of the state of emergency, but the governor has announced criteria for gradually lifting some restraints on businesses including eateries and bars.