Japan’s government has urged people to exercise the “highest level of vigilance” after the country reported a record number of new Covid-19 cases in a new wave of infections driven by the highly transmissible BA.5 subvariant.
More than 186,000 cases were recorded nationwide on Thursday, while Tokyo easily beat its existing daily record with 31,878 cases. The capital, along with Osaka and Fukuoka, were among 30 of the country’s 47 prefectures to report record highs this week.
People living in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, which saw a record 5,250 new cases, would be asked to avoid non-essential outings from Friday until mid-August, the public broadcaster NHK said.
In addition, groups of up to four diners would be permitted to eat at restaurants for a maximum of only two hours, while older people and those with underlying health conditions would be advised to meet only family members with whom they lived, NHK said.
Okinawa has a hospital bed occupancy rate of about 60%, prompting the local medical association to warn that the islands’ health infrastructure was on the verge of collapse and to ask people not to make emergency visits if they have light, cold-like symptoms.
The central government said there were no immediate plans to return to restrictions seen during previous waves of the virus, but urged people to exercise caution amid fears that further surges could raise pressure on health services.
The health minister, Shigeyuki Goto, said the sharp rise in infections “could increase the number of patients with severe symptoms”, adding that he was particularly concerned about possible outbreaks among vulnerable people in hospitals and nursing homes.
The chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, said: “We need to keep a close eye on the infection situation going forward, including access to medical services, with the highest level of vigilance.”
The Kyodo news agency reported that some members of the official Covid advisory panel had called on the government to consider placing areas with the highest infection rates under a state of emergency – a move that could include restricting people’s movements and requiring bars and restaurants to close early and limit alcohol sales, or face fines.
That appears unlikely given that the current wave – Japan’s seventh of the pandemic – has disproportionately affected children and young people. The virus panel warned, however, that a recent rise in cases among people aged 60 could see more patients developing serious symptoms.
Experts say that widespread mask-wearing, a high vaccination rate and other factors have helped Japan avoid the catastrophic death tolls seen in comparable countries, and without the use of lockdowns.
Despite its large population of over-65s, Japan has the lowest per capita rate of Covid-19 deaths among the 38 OECD countries, with 246 per million people, according to Our World in Data.
Mask-wearing is still the norm, even after the government said people could remove them outdoors while socially distanced, especially during the hot summer months.
Some Tokyoites said they were worried about the recent surge.
“I think it’s really shocking that it’s risen to more than 30,000,” said Ai Okamura, an office worker. “I live with my grandmother, so it makes me feel much more cautious.”
Shinichi Koyama, a systems engineer, said he wasn’t surprised infections had risen to record levels. “Since around spring, everyone has calmed down and gone back to normal,” he said. “So to a certain extent this was predictable.”
Reuters contributed to this report