TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga urged the nation on Friday to spend a quiet New Year period without the usual social gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has broken infection records almost daily.
Suga also announced a $ 2.6 billion package for hospitals treating COVID-19 patients that have been strained due to the rapid increase in cases on the northern island of Hokkaido and large cities like Tokyo and Osaka. .
“I want you to have a quiet New Year,” the premier said at a press conference in Tokyo with the government’s leading coronavirus expert Shigeru Omi.
“The infections are not decreasing and if we continue in this way, we will not be able to avoid further spread of the virus.”
The country has confirmed its first five cases of the new variant of the virus that is fastest spreading in passengers arriving from the UK, Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said Friday.
Suga called for strong quarantine measures at airports and on those returning from the UK, Tamura said after his meeting with the prime minister.
Japan has banned entry from the UK, with the exception of returning Japanese citizens and those with a residence permit.
Japan does not celebrate Christmas, but the New Year period is an extended national holiday, with many people usually returning to their cities and spending time with family and friends.
Omi warned that it is essential that “all citizens move in the same direction” to control the health crisis.
“If we don’t cut down on infections now, once they recur after the New Year period it won’t be easy to change the downward trend,” he said. “It would take time and would probably be impossible to control over a period of weeks,” he said.
Omi said shared meals are a major cause of infections and urged people to refrain from holding large gatherings and to limit meals to four people who ate regularly or not.
While Japan has avoided the huge number of infections seen in other parts of the world, the number of new cases per day exceeded 3,000 for the first time this month. Tokyo reported 884 infections on Friday, close to Thursday’s record of 888.
Underlining the tension on hospitals, five national groups of doctors and other health workers made an emergency request in Suga on Friday, calling for strong anti-pandemic measures and support for the medical sector.
With hospitals equipped to treat COVID-19 filling up, other hospitals are being forced to accept patients with the disease, according to Tsuyoshi Masuda, president of the Japanese Federation of Democratic Medical Institutions.
“These small and medium-sized hospitals, which have supported medical services in their respective regions, are facing a crisis that threatens their survival,” Masuda told reporters at a separate press conference on Friday.
He also warned that the risk of hospital infections was high in institutions not specialized in the treatment of infectious diseases.
Japan, with a population of 126 million, has made deals to purchase 290 million doses of the vaccine from Pfizer Inc, AstraZeneca Plc and Moderna Inc, or enough for 145 million people.
A panel from the health ministry said people aged 65 and over should get priority for vaccination against COVID-19, as should front-line health workers and people with underlying medical conditions.
He specified chronic heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, and chronic kidney disease, among others, as underlying conditions that should determine priority.
The panel’s recommendations would mean 36 million seniors and 8.2 million people with medical conditions would be the first to receive the shots.
Reportage by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Ju-min Park, Testsushi Kajimoto and Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Edmund Klamann and William Mallard