Japan to fully lift COVID-19 restrictions as infections slow

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced plans to fully lift coronavirus restrictions on March 21 as new infections driven by the highly contagious omicron variant slow

The COVID-19 restrictions currently in place in 18 prefectures, including the Tokyo area, will end on Monday as planned, Kishida said at a news conference on Wednesday, as his government seeks to cautiously expand consumer activity to help the badly hurt economy get back on track.

“This will be a transitional period so that we can return to our normal daily lives as much as possible by taking maximum precautions,” Kishida said.

Daily caseloads have steadily declined in Japan in recent weeks surging to new highs exceed 100,000 in early February. New cases have fallen by about half.

The lifting of restrictions will allow more domestic travel, as well as parties and larger gatherings for people with vaccination records and negative virus tests, Kishida said.

But Japan is not opening its border to foreign tourists yet.

Kishida on Wednesday did not mention further easing of Japan’s border controls. His government has eased border restrictions by increasing the limit on daily new arrivals to 7,000 in order to allow in foreign scholars, students, business people and interns after criticisms from inside and outside Japan that locking them out is exclusionist and unscientific.

While omicron causes mild symptoms in most people and the fatality rate remains low, the latest wave is the deadliest one so far in Japan because the total number of patients were many times higher than in earlier waves. Still, deaths in Japan total about 26,000 since the pandemic began two years ago, significant lower than many other countries.

Most victims were elderly patients whose underlying illnesses rapidly worsened after contracting the virus, experts said.

Kishida has faced criticism that he delayed booster shots until all municipalities were ready, allow the virus to quickly spread in the country.

Experts urge caution after the lifting of restrictions due to the possibility of a resurgence of infections. A subvariant of omicron is replacing the primary strain around the country.

In some areas, hospital bed occupancy rates still exceed 50%, and oral antiviral pills are not reaching as many people as expected. Although Kishida’s government has imported to secure millions of doses of the two oral pills, they are not widely used. One is rather large and hard to swallow, and another cannot be combined with many other drugs.

The ongoing COVID-19 restrictions are greatly limited to eateries, where shorter service hours are requested. The general public is also asked to work from home and avoid parties and large events, as well as to wear masks while in public places and follow other basic anti-virus measures.

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