By Rocky Swift
TOKYO (Reuters) – An expert panel guiding Japan’s coronavirus response recommended on Thursday that schools in some regions could be re-opened but that large gatherings and enclosed areas that could reignite the contagion should still be avoided.
The infectious disease experts made no reference to the Tokyo Olympics, set to start from July 24 but which have been cast into doubt by the coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of sporting events and qualifiers around the world.
The panel recommended that areas of Japan with low numbers of coronavirus cases can consider resuming classes and sporting events, and said that the increase in cases appeared to be slightly decreasing.
Shigeru Omi, a panel member and president of the Japan Community Healthcare Organization, said that in areas with little sign of the virus, re-opening schools and gradually returning to normal activities could be considered, though strict vigilance was needed.
“We are insisting on very strict criteria if organisers decide to hold big-scale events,” Omi told a late-night news conference that spilled into Friday.
“And if those criteria can’t be met, the event should be postponed or cancelled as soon as something doesn’t seem right.”
Asked specifically about the Olympics, another member said the panel did not discuss them. “To prevent the spread of the virus – that’s what we discussed,” said Takaji Wakita, director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.
Japan has had 970 domestically transmitted cases of coronavirus and 34 deaths excluding cases from a cruise ship moored near Tokyo last month, according to the latest tally from Kyodo News.
Most schools in Japan have been closed in March upon the government’s request.
Olympics organisers have repeatedly said the Games will go on as scheduled.
HOKKAIDO ENDS EMERGENCY
The governor of Hokkaido, the prefecture with the highest number of infections at more than 150, said his administration was scaling back its response to the outbreak, ending the emergency on Thursday to move to a new phase.
In Nagoya city, capital of hard-hit Aichi prefecture, scores of elderly day care centres with thousands of users will reopen from Saturday after a two-week shutdown.
The city had requested the facilities close after a cluster of contagion cases had been linked to an elderly care centre.
However, the governor of Osaka asked citizens to refrain from unnecessary travel between the Hyogo and Osaka prefectures in western Japan over the three-day weekend from Friday.
Osaka had seen 117 cases and Hyogo 92 as of Thursday morning, according to public broadcaster NHK’s tally.
The virus has infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 8,700 globally. The most serious spread is now taking place in Europe as China, where the virus originated late last year, has succeeded in bringing its epidemic under control.
The United States and Europe have enacted travel bans and put major cities on lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.
Japan has closed schools and cancelled many sporting events, but has refrained from putting firm restrictions on travel, businesses and restaurants, and social distancing has not caught on as a recommended safeguard.
“Is the school closure good, or something meaningless? At the moment we don’t have the scientific data to be sure,” Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, another panel member, said.
With the outbreak taking a heavy toll on the economy, the government is working on a stimulus package, likely to be compiled in April, that could be worth more than $276 billion.
The number of foreign visitors to Japan plunged 58% in February from a year earlier, data showed on Thursday, a big hit to an important source of consumption.
A planned state visit to Britain by the emperor and empress of Japan in June has been postponed and will be rescheduled at a later date, Buckingham Palace said.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift, Elaine Lies, Chang-Ran Kim and Chris Gallagher; Writing by Elaine Lies and Linda Sieg; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel, Kim Coghill and Jan Harvey)