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Japan attempts to stem surge in Covid cases linked to US military bases

Japan is to introduce limits on bar and restaurant opening times in three areas in an attempt to stem a surge in coronavirus cases that has been linked to US military bases.

The measures – officially described as a quasi-state of emergency – will go into effect from Sunday until the end of the month in Okinawa, home to more than half of the US service personnel based in Japan, and parts of the western prefectures of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi, which also host American troops.

The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has come under increasing pressure this week to address outbreaks that began at US military facilities last month and have since spread to the local civilian population.

US military authorities on Thursday announced stricter Covid-19 measures, including mandatory mask wearing off base and stronger testing regimes.

New cases have surged in Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, since the start of the year, rising from 51 last Saturday to a record 1,414 on Friday. Those numbers do not include new infections found among US military personnel and their families.

“This number will likely stay high and steadily increase,” said the governor of Okinawa, Denny Tamaki, who has publicly criticised the US military over its response to outbreaks at local bases.

Tamaki now has the power to ask restaurants and bars in Okinawa to reduce their opening hours. While the measures are voluntary, establishments that refuse to comply can face fines.

The measures approved on Friday will be the first in Japan since last September, when a dramatic fall in cases prompted the government to end months of restrictions in many parts of the country.

Infections have also been on the rise in the larger cities. Tokyo reported 922 new cases on Friday, the most since 15 September, prompting officials to direct restaurants to reduce the number of people in groups of diners from eight to four.

Coronavirus cases in Japan

While Japan’s coronavirus caseload is much smaller than the US, the UK and other comparable countries, experts said people should expect a steady rise in infections, including those of the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

“Given the sudden surge in infections, the medical system runs the risk of suffering a heavy burden in the near future,” Daishiro Yamagiwa, the minister in charge of Japan’s Covid-19 responses, said at a government panel meeting.

New infections exceeded 4,000 across Japan on Thursday, compared with an average of about 200 a day last month. The Omicron variant has been identified in 80% of Japan’s 47 prefectures, weeks after the country imposed a ban on all overseas arrivals except Japanese citizens and returning foreign residents.

“There are cases where there is no history of overseas travel and the route of infection is unknown, while the Delta strain also continues to spread,” said Shigeyuki Goto, the health minister. “We must be prepared for the rapid spread of infections in the future.”

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