People throng places, events in Tokyo amid soaring infections

Revellers in Tokyo rang in the festive season by crowding shopping districts, packing Christmas markets and thronging illumination events with barely a thought for social distancing, potentially compromising official efforts to rein in surging Covid-19 infections.

Tokyo set a new single-day high of 949 new Covid-19 cases yesterday, busting its previous, two-day-old high of 888 on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day, 884 new infections were reported.

The country recorded at least 3,877 cases yesterday, the fourth straight day that the national record has been rewritten.

Nearly half the cases were in Tokyo and the neighbouring prefectures of Kanagawa (480), Saitama (265) and Chiba (201).

There were 654 seriously ill patients nationwide as at yesterday, also a new record.

Given the surge in cases, Japan said last night that it will ban entry into the country for all except citizens and returning foreign nationals from tomorrow until the end of next month.

The British variant of the coronavirus, said to be up to 70 per cent more contagious, was detected in the capital yesterday.

Two of Tokyo’s 949 new infections were due to the British mutation: An aircraft captain in his 30s who returned from Britain recently but was not detected at the airport, and a female family member. The Health Ministry is investigating if there are close contacts.

The two cases followed Friday’s confirmation of Japan’s first five cases of the more transmissible variant by airport quarantine officials.

They all involved people who had returned from Britain.

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     Number of new infections among Tokyo’s 949 cases yesterday that were due to the British variant of the coronavirus. The new strain is said to be up to 70 per cent more contagious.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga advised people on Friday to spend the year-end period quietly and refrain from traditional social activities such as large gatherings and drinking parties.

He did not rule out calling a second state of emergency if the situation continued to spiral out of control.

But these official warnings and advisories to spend the festive season quietly may fall on deaf ears.

The number of people going out in Tokyo this month remains at pre-pandemic levels even as new cases surge.

It remains to be seen whether metropolitan areas will be crowded with people celebrating the New Year, though the discontinuation of the Go To Travel domestic tourism campaign has deterred many from returning to their home towns for family gatherings.

Kyodo News cited airlines as saying that reservations for domestic flights between Christmas and Jan 3 were down 45 per cent from a year earlier.

Bookings for shinkansen and express trains were down 61 per cent from Dec 9 to Jan 5.

Japan has had relatively relaxed Covid-19 guidelines – Mr Suga said on Friday that he plans to toughen them by revising laws to punish businesses that refuse to comply with requests to shorten operating hours.

More oversight might also be needed on quarantine.

Those on self-isolation at home in Japan can go out for brief periods to run errands at convenience stores or supermarkets. The authorities rarely check in – if ever.

A confirmed Covid-19 case – a man in his 20s who works in the investigation department of the Tokyo Public Prosecutors’ Office – skipped quarantine despite being on self-isolation until today.

He travelled to Fukuoka via highway bus. While details on when he left are unavailable, Deputy Prosecutor Hiroshi Yamamoto denounced the behaviour as “extremely inappropriate”.


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