(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is considering declaring a state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounding areas as Covid-19 infections and number of people in serious condition reach record levels.
Domestic reports say the measure could be declared as early as Jan. 7, covering the capital and three adjoining prefectures and lasting a month. The step would hand power to local governments to urge residents to stay home and order some businesses to close or limit operations, though authorities can’t force compliance for now.
It would be the second such declaration, following an emergency beginning in April that was for a time extended across the whole country before being revoked as case numbers fell.
1. What would an emergency declaration mean?
Japan’s version of an emergency won’t result in the type of “lockdowns” seen in Europe. Due to civil liberties enshrined in Japan’s postwar constitution, the government cannot send police to clear people off the streets, as has happened in places including France, Italy and the U.K. The main effect will be to increase the powers of prefectural governors. Under an emergency, a governor can urge local people to avoid unnecessary outings, but residents would have the right to ignore such requests, and there are no penalties for disobedience. Schools won’t to be asked to close en masse this time, and university entrance exams will go ahead as planned, Education Minister Koichi Haiguda said.
2. What about businesses?
Businesses can be asked to shut down or limit activities, and ordered to do so if they don’t comply, but again there are no penalties for non-compliance. Suga’s government is seeking to add both penalties for businesses that don’t obey, as well as formalize financial help for those that do, to a Special Measures Act on virus management. Punishments are already specified for a small number of offenses, including hiding supplies that have been requisitioned by local authorities.
The declaration also allows local authorities to control prices of daily essentials, provide loans through government-related financial institutions and make compulsory purchases of food and medicines. Tokyo will again urge people to work from home as much as possible, call on people to stay at home after 8 p.m., and is expected to urge restaurants to close no later than that time. Theaters and cinemas won’t be asked to close, unlike last time, according to broadcaster TBS.
3. Will people obey the requests?
People largely complied with government requests to refrain from going out during the previous state of emergency. But Suga said in a Jan. 4 press conference that the movement of people in the Tokyo area had not fallen much in December, despite pleas from local and national government for people to stay at home. He said that meant a stronger message was needed for the capital and surrounding regions, where the number of new infections has recently accounted for half the national total. Even so, Japan’s cumulative tally of confirmed cases over the past year falls short of what the U.S. sometimes records in a day.
4. What could be the economic hit?
Suga said he wanted a limited and focused emergency aimed at reducing the risk of infections at bars and restaurants, which experts say are one of the main sites for transmission. Nonetheless, the Tokyo metropolitan area alone accounts for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product, which would make it the world’s 11th largest economy. Bloomberg Economics’ Yuki Masujima sees the emergency declaration shaving up to 0.7% off the economy for each month it lasts.
5. What will it mean for the Olympics?
Suga reiterated Jan. 4 that he was determined to stage the delayed 2020 Tokyo Games this year, and would proceed with preparations. But the possible state of emergency, meant to curb people’s movements and business activities, is raising some concerns whether the 2020 Games will need to be postponed again or be outright canceled. The Tokyo Olympics was officially delayed in March last year amid surging virus cases, with the government declaring an emergency shortly after the decision.
Japan stepped up border controls in response to the emergence of a more infectious mutation of the virus. It’s now considering a blanket entry ban for all non-resident foreigners, the Asahi newspaper reported. Under a state of emergency, it’s hard to see that being relaxed, which could complicate the arrival of athletes, staff and spectators from around the world — especially when polls show more than half of respondents want the Games called off or postponed.