Japan to extend emergency virus measures as Olympics approach

The emergency measures, which are less strict than blanket lockdowns elsewhere, had been due to end on 11 May but are now expected to continue until the end of the month.

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games to be hosted by Tokyo have been moved to 2021. Picture: Twitter/@Tokyo2020

TOKYO - A virus state of emergency in Tokyo and other parts of Japan will be extended on Friday, less than three months before the Olympics, with restrictions also imposed in more regions as cases surge.

The emergency measures, which are less strict than blanket lockdowns elsewhere, had been due to end on 11 May but are now expected to continue until the end of the month.

Japan's COVID-19 outbreak remains much smaller than in many countries, with just over 10,500 deaths.

But its vaccine rollout is moving slowly and record case numbers have been seen in some areas as more infectious variants drive fresh waves of contagion.

Osaka governor Hirofumi Yoshimura has warned that the region's medical system is "reaching breaking point", with reports of COVID-19 patients dying while waiting for an ambulance.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of the virus measures, told parliament that the government will formally announce the extension later Friday.

Two more regions, Fukuoka and Aichi, will be added to the four that have been under emergency restrictions since late April - Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto and Tokyo, where the Olympics are due to open on 23 July.

The state of emergency limits commercial activity, with bars and restaurants told to shut or stop serving alcohol, and cinemas and karaoke parlours closed.

But some rules are expected to be eased despite the extension, with shopping malls allowed to operate if they curb their opening hours.

Sports fans had been barred from stadiums under the emergency rules, but up to 5,000 spectators will soon be allowed, or 50% of the venue's capacity, local media reported.

'PROTECT OUR LIVES'

More than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries and regions are set to travel to Tokyo for the pandemic-postponed 2020 Olympics.

Japan's government and Games organisers insist the event will go ahead safely - although polls show most of the Japanese public support cancellation or another delay.

More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition titled "Cancel the Tokyo Olympics to protect our lives" after it was launched Wednesday by a lawyer and former Tokyo gubernatorial candidate.

And a hospital in western Tokyo put up signs in its windows saying "Olympics impossible!" with the chief doctor telling the Asahi Shimbun daily the facility's nurses were already overburdened.

World Athletics boss Sebastian Coe, who attended a scaled-back rehearsal for the Olympic marathon in the northern city of Sapporo on Wednesday, said Friday he recognised the "challenging times" faced by Japan.

"The safety of our athletes is important to us, but also the safety of the local community," he told reporters in Tokyo.

Coe said athletes at the marathon test had accepted virus countermeasures, adding that he knew they had also found it "comforting" that Japanese authorities are "taking this so seriously".

US drugs giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech on Thursday announced a deal with the International Olympic Committee to provide vaccines to competitors and staff at the Tokyo Games.

But Japan's own vaccine programme is progressing cautiously, with under one percent of the population having received two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, the only jab authorised so far.

The pandemic has disrupted Olympic test events, with several postponed, cancelled or moved abroad, although the Diving World Cup and a rowing qualifier went ahead this week in Tokyo with athletes from abroad.

Several sections of the torch relay have also been moved off-road to prevent people gathering to watch.

The governor of Fukuoka said Friday he wanted the torch to be pulled from public roads when it passes through the region next week.

Olympics organisers are yet to decide how many fans - if any - will be allowed at the Games, with overseas spectators already barred from attending.

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