Japan to extend COVID-19 measures as Olympics approach

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Japan will prolong a virus state of emergency in Tokyo and other regions and impose restrictions in more areas on Friday as cases surge less than three months before the Olympics.

The emergency measures, less strict than the blanket lockdowns seen in other countries, focus on limiting commercial activity with malls closed and bars and restaurants told to shut or stop serving alcohol.


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They were imposed in Tokyo, Osaka and two other regions in late April -- just weeks after a previous state of emergency was lifted -- and had been due to end on May 11.

But the government is expected to extend the restrictions until the end of May and also impose them in Fukuoka and Aichi prefectures, where infections are spiking.

A formal announcement will be made later on Friday, with officials expected to ease some measures to allow department stores to reopen and a limited number of spectators at sports events.

Japan’s COVID-19 outbreak remains much smaller than in many countries, with around 10,000 deaths.

But its vaccine rollout is moving slowly and more infectious variants are driving fresh waves of contagion, with record case numbers seen in some regions and medics warning that hospitals are under strain.

Osaka governor Hirofumi Yoshimura warned Thursday that “the situation of infections is very tough” and “the medical system is reaching breaking point”, saying he had requested an extension of the emergency measures.

The pandemic-postponed 2020 Olympics are due to open on July 23, and the government and Games organizers insist they will go ahead safely -- even though a majority of Japanese people support cancellation or another delay.

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 program is progressing cautiously, with under one percent of the population having received two shots of the Pfizer vaccine, the only jab authorized so far.

The pandemic has disrupted test events for the Olympics, with several postponed, canceled 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.

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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 organizers 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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