Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide 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.
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. 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.
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.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.