Health experts in Japan have said the country is confronting a coronavirus “disaster” and urged the government to take immediate action to stem a surge in infections.
The warning came as local media reported that spectators will be banned from almost all events at the Paralympics, which are due to open on 24 August.
The government and organisers of the Games will make an official decision next week, Kyodo cited unnamed officials as saying. Media reports said sports fans would be denied admission to venues in Tokyo and Saitama prefectures, although a limited number could attend events in Shizuoka prefecture, which does not border Tokyo. Organisers are reportedly considering inviting schoolchildren to venues.
Japan is in the midst of an explosion of infections caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant. It reported more than 18,000 cases on Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 15,812 logged a day earlier, according to the Kyodo news agency.
Tokyo, which is under a state of emergency targeting the capital’s night-time economy, recorded 4,989 cases on Thursday, the second-highest figure since the start of the pandemic. The western prefecture of Osaka reported a record 1,654 infections the same day.
Health officials are also concerned about the number of people in Tokyo with serious symptoms, which has risen above 200 for the first time, amid warnings that the city’s hospitals are coming under renewed pressure, with those aged in their 40s and 50s occupying many of the available beds.
In addition, more 20,000 people with milder symptoms are being asked to stay at home, a policy that in the past has resulted in deaths in isolation.
“If infections continue to surge at the current pace, we won’t be able to save lives that could otherwise be saved,” said Shigeru Omi, the government’s most senior adviser on the virus. “This is already happening. The situation is like a disaster.”
The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, continues to rule out any connection between the spike in cases and the Tokyo Olympics, which ended last weekend.
While it does not appear that athletes and other visitors spread infections outside the Olympic “bubble”, experts including Omi have said the festival atmosphere surrounding the Games caused people to drop their guard.
A month-long state of emergency, under which restaurants and bars in Tokyo have been asked not to serve alcohol and to close early, has failed to prevent the upsurge as more establishments choose to ignore the request despite the threat of fines.
Experts said the emergency measures should be expanded nationwide, adding that footfall in Tokyo needed to be brought down to half the level of early July to rein-in the latest surge in cases.
Omi, who weeks ago described holding the Olympics during the pandemic as “abnormal”, called for widespread testing and urged more medical institutions to support Covid-19 patients who have been told to self-isolate. “Otherwise, we are going to see more tragic cases at home,” he said.
Japan is now vaccinating about a million people a day, but its rollout began several months after Britain and other countries, and has not progressed enough to check the spread of the Delta variant. About 36% of the population of 126m is fully vaccinated.
Japan’s seven-day rolling average of new cases stands at 11.2 per 100,000 people, compared to 2.8 in India, 37 in the US and 41 in Britain, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Experts advising the Tokyo metropolitan government repeated Omi’s alarming description of the latest Covid-19 wave.
“Infections are raging and becoming uncontrollable,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Centre. “It’s almost a disaster, a situation where people have no choice but to protect their lives on their own.”
Wires contributed reporting