TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday announced an extension of a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and 18 other areas until the end of September, saying healthcare systems remain under severe strain, and that the continuing challenges of fighting the virus had led to his decision not to seek another term.
The state of emergency, which was to end on Sunday, was issued first in Okinawa in May and gradually expanded and extended as the country prepared to host the Olympics.
Despite the prolonged emergency, the largely voluntary measures have grown less effective as exhausted Japanese increasingly ignore them. Suga has come under fire for failing to deliver more effective measures and a convincing message to win people's support.
Suga said serious COVID-19 cases remain high and are still overwhelming many hospitals. He called on the people to continue to work remotely and observe other social distancing measures “so that we can return to safe and prosperous daily lives."
The extension will cover a period when Japan’s government is in transition. Suga has announced that he will not run in a Sept. 29 race for his party’s leadership. His successor in that race will almost certainly become the next prime minister.
Suga said he was forced to abandon plans for a possible snap election and personnel reshuffle ahead of the party leadership race because doing those while tacking COVID-19 “required an incredible amount of energy." A run in the party race on top of that became increasingly difficult for Suga, who does not belong to any party faction that would help his campaign.
His government has faced sharp criticism over virus measures seen as too late and too small to be effective, and for holding the Olympics despite public opposition during the pandemic.
Suga said he has devoted himself to fighting the coronavirus since taking office a year ago, when little was known about it. “We've had trouble securing hospital capacity and that's my regret,” Suga said. “It's still not enough.”
Suga, known in the past for a hard-nosed ability to break through territorial divisions between ministries to get things done, achieved some results, including the speeding up of Japan's lagging vaccination process, but still faced widespread sectionalism across the bureaucracy that slowed things down. “I believe we need a system that can oversee and respond to a (emergency) situation like the coronavirus in one place," Suga said.
He also noted that time-consuming Japanese procedures to approve vaccines and new treatments or secure medical staff were also obstacles that need to be addressed for better crisis management.
“We need to stabilize medical systems and make sure that infections are steadily decreasing,” Economy and Fiscal Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of COVID-19 measures, said earlier Thursday. He said tens of thousands of people are still recovering at home or in makeshift facilities with limited medical care.
The government, meanwhile, is studying a roadmap for easing restrictions around November when a large majority of the population is expected to be fully vaccinated, Suga said. The easing of restrictions would allow fully vaccinated people to travel, gather for parties or attend mass events.
Currently, about 49% of the people are fully inoculated and the rate is expected to exceed 60% by the end of September, Nishimura said.
Suga said the speeding up of vaccines is his major contribution as prime minister.
He said about 90% of elderly people have been fully vaccinated, and that has kept as many as 100,000 people from being infected and saved 8,000 lives, according to a health ministry estimate.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, the top medical adviser for Suga's government, said the vaccine progress since June is largely due to the prime minister's leadership, with the sharing of public health data between government ministries, health centers and other organizations still disorganized.
Japan has done much better than other developed countries in the number of cases and deaths without having a lockdown, but the country has been struggling with new waves of infections propelled by more contagious new variants. Japan has reported about 1.65 million cases and 16,500 deaths.