Japan urges young people to get jabs and stay in amid Tokyo Covid surge

Health experts in Japan have warned that a recent surge in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, six days into the Olympics, could put hospitals under severe strain unless young people stop socialising at night and get vaccinated.

Tokyo reported 3,865 daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, up from 3,177 on Wednesday, as rising infections in the capital cast a shadow over the Olympics. Wednesday was the first time cases in Tokyo had exceeded 3,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Across the country there were more than 9,500 confirmed cases on Wednesday, a new daily record that brought the total to about 892,000, with 15,000 deaths. Prefectures bordering Tokyo are poised to request tougher measures in an attempt to contain the outbreak.

While the country has so far avoided the huge outbreaks and death tolls seen elsewhere, its seven-day rolling average is rising, as residents of the capital and other cities ignore requests to avoid non-essential outings.

“We have never experienced an expansion in infections of this magnitude,” the chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters.

Experts are blaming largely unvaccinated younger people, who are more likely to mingle outside their homes, for the recent rebound in cases.

Japan’s vaccines minister, Taro Kono, said the overall pace of Japan’s rollout – about 1m doses a day – was less important than persuading people in their 20s and 30s to get jabbed.

“Even if we slow down a little bit, I’m OK with that,” he said. “Rather, we need to reach out to younger people, so that they feel it’s necessary for them to get vaccinated.”

As of Wednesday, 26.3% of the Japanese population had been fully vaccinated, but the proportion rises to 70% – or 24.8 million people – among those aged 65 or over.

Cases among younger, unvaccinated people are rising sharply. While about two-thirds of Wednesday’s cases were among people in their 30s or below, those in their 40s and 50s account for most of the 3,000 patients being treated for the virus in Tokyo hospitals.

Tokyo’s experience suggests that repeated states of emergency intended to limit social interaction, particularly in the evening, are no longer working. Tokyo prefecture has been subject to tougher measures since 12 July, and they are not due to be lifted until 22 August, a fortnight after the Olympics have ended.

While bars and restaurants face fines if they ignore requests not to serve alcohol and to close at 8 pm, more are reverting to regular opening hours – with alcohol on the menu – after 18 months of periodical restrictions that have hit the night-time economy in big cities.

Shigeru Omi, the government’s senior health adviser, said several factors could be behind the recent surge, but singled out the Olympics and the summer holidays, which were encouraging people to mix and spend more time outdoors, even though spectators are banned from Games venues.

“While almost nothing is helping to slow the infections, there are many factors that can accelerate them,” he told a parliamentary panel. “The biggest risk is the lack of a sense of crisis, and without it, infections will further expand and put medical systems under severe strain.”

The outbreak is expected to fuel criticism of the decision to push ahead with the Tokyo 2020 Games, despite widespread public opposition and warnings that they would drive a rise in infections.

There is no evidence that athletes or other people associated with the Olympics are transmitting the virus to Japanese citizens. But the carefree atmosphere generated by the Games, combined with hot and humid weather, are making it harder for people to comply with stay-at-home requests at a time when the more contagious Delta variant is spreading, according to Omi.

The variant is now responsible for about 70% of infections in the Tokyo metropolitan area, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

“We have never seen infections spread so rapidly,” Omi said, adding that the government needed to send a “clearer, stronger message” to people about their behaviour. “The biggest crisis is that society does not share a sense of risk.”

Officials in Tokyo said two people from overseas connected to the Olympics had been hospitalised with Covid-19, while a third had been discharged. A further 38 are self-isolating at designated hotels in the city, prompting the Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, to urge organisers to ensure that hospitals were not put under further pressure.

Organisers reported 24 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily count associated with the Games, the total to 193.

The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is hoping a successful and relatively safe Olympics will turn around his flagging approval ratings. But he was accused of being naive after he again asked people to spend as much time at home as possible and watch the sport on TV.

“Unless it revises its view of the infection situation, after the Olympics end there will be a serious national crisis affecting people’s lives, beginning with a collapse of the medical system,” said Jun Azumi, a senior opposition MP, according to the public broadcaster NHK.

The governors of three prefectures near Tokyo were due to ask the government to declare full states of emergency for their regions, the economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who leads Japan’s coronavirus response, told a parliamentary panel.

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