TOKYO, April 20 (Xinhua) -- The western prefecture of Osaka in Japan on Tuesday requested that the central government declare a fresh state of emergency for the region owing to COVID-19 cases surging there and causing a considerable strain on health care facilities.
But according to a senior official, the central government, as of Tuesday evening, had yet to decide on whether to grant the prefecture's request for a state of emergency to be declared, as well as for the neighboring prefecture of Hyogo.
The official said that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and relevant members of his Cabinet, including Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the government's COVID-19 response and health minister Norihisa Tamura, will continue to deliberate on the matter before formalizing a decision.
The Osaka prefectural government has requested the central government to declare a third emergency virus period, so that the prefecture would be empowered to implement stronger measures to tackle the spread of the virus.
In light of rising COVID-19 cases and increasingly severe strain on the healthcare system, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura has said the current quasi-emergency measures allowing for bars and restaurants in the city to be asked to shorten their operating hours and close their doors at 8 p.m. do not go far enough.
"The current steps are not effective enough to contain the recent surge of infections," Yoshimura said.
Yoshimura said he plans to request bars and restaurants, along with department stores and amusement parks to suspend their operations temporarily. He has also said he wants people's movements to be further restricted under the new state of emergency and that these intentions have been conveyed to Nishimura.
Elementary and junior high school classes in Osaka may also be asked to be temporarily held online under the new emergency measures.
As for the government's response, Tamura said the government will seek expert advice and assist the prefecture to implement tougher measures if the current ones are deemed insufficient, as has been suggested by Yoshimura.
"The government as a whole will consider the need to declare a fresh state of emergency after hearing expert opinions. The government will work with the prefecture to implement tougher anti-virus steps if the experts deem current measures are insufficient," Tamura said.
Similarly, informed sources said Tuesday the Tokyo metropolitan government will request the central government to declare a fresh state of emergency in the capital this week as it also struggles to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The local government in Tokyo may request certain businesses to shutter their operations during the emergency period, in a bid to prevent the further spread of highly-transmissible virus variants, which have been on the increase in the Japanese capital, the sources said.
Nishimura has agreed that Tokyo requires more stringent anti-virus measures or can expect the number of new COVID-19 cases to keep increasing, particularly if people continue to frequent the capital's entertainment districts.
He said the central government and the Tokyo metropolitan government will discuss measures to bolster the fight against the further spread of the virus, while keeping close tabs on the rising cases of highly contagious virus variants in the capital.
On Tuesday, quasi-emergency steps came into effect for parts of Tokyo's surrounding prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, as well as for Aichi Prefecture, and will be effective through May 11.
Prior to these measures being implemented, similar steps were taken for Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hyogo, Miyagi and Okinawa prefectures amid a surge in cases in these regions and concerns that the virus would continue to spread unabated as Japan braces for the Golden Week string of national holidays, one of the busiest times for travel in the country.
Tokyo and its three neighboring prefectures were last placed under a state of emergency through March 21 and Osaka through the end of February.
But Osaka has seen cases surpass those in Tokyo recently and logged new daily infections topping 1,000 for six consecutive days through Sunday, according to figures from local officials and the health ministry.
On Tuesday, officials reported 1,153 new infections in Osaka, with health authorities saying that severe COVID-19 patients currently do not have enough hospital beds.
The authorities said that there are 254 beds allocated for those suffering with severe COVID-19 symptoms, but 302 people designated as being in a serious condition.
"The occupancy rate of hospital beds has risen rapidly, and the health care availability is in a critical situation in Osaka," Japan's top government spokesperson Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a regular news conference on Tuesday.
Tokyo, meanwhile, the hardest hit by the virus since its outbreak here, reported 711 new COVID-19 cases in the capital on Tuesday, marking the first time in almost three months that daily new cases topped 700 on a Tuesday.
The latest figure has jumped by 201 compared to a week ago, marking a 20th straight daily week-on-week increase, the figures from local authorities and the health ministry showed Tuesday evening.
Nationwide, meanwhile, 4,335 cases were reported Tuesday, bringing the cumulative total of infections since the outbreak of the virus to 542,960, with the death toll rising to a total of 9,731 people.
Experts in virology have stated that Japan has entered a "fourth wave" of virus infections, with the situation exacerbated by the country's sluggish vaccine rollout compared to other major economies.