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UPDATE 2-Japan set to expand state of emergency, public cools to Olympics

13 Jan 2021 / 13:14 H.

    (Recasts with government seeking advisory panel approval, medical expert comment)

    By Elaine Lies and Chang-Ran Kim

    TOKYO, Jan 13 (Reuters) - The Japanese government said on Wednesday it wants to expand a state of emergency it declared for the Tokyo area last week to seven more prefectures, as the public's hopes for a Summer Olympics fade with the steady spread of COVID-19.

    The move comes after the governors of Osaka, Kyoto and other hard-hit prefectures requested the government issue the emergency state, which gives local authorities the legal basis to place restrictions on residents' movements and businesses.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been wary about taking measures that would hamper economic activity, while he has put on a brave face against the mounting challenges of hosting the delayed Olympics in Tokyo this year.

    Japan has recorded some 298,000 coronavirus cases and 4,192 deaths so far, according to public broadcaster NHK.

    As coronavirus infections hover at record-high levels in a third wave in Japan, opinion polls have shown a public increasingly opposed to holding the Summer Games this year - and growing frustration with Suga.

    In a weekend survey by NHK, just 16% of respondents said the Games should go ahead this year - down 11 percentage points from the previous poll last month - while a combined 77% thought they should be cancelled or postponed. The Games are set for July 23-Aug. 8.

    At the start of a meeting with a government advisory panel, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura asked for approval to add Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Fukuoka, Aichi, Gifu and Tochigi prefectures to a state of emergency from Thursday.

    Suga is expected to announce the plan at a 7 p.m. (1000 GMT) news conference.

    "Unless we rein in infections in big cities, we can't stop the spread nationally," Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said at the same meeting.

    The latest emergency declaration covering 55% of Japan's population of 126 million is set to last through Feb. 7 and is much narrower in scope than the first one last spring. It focuses on combating transmission in bars and restaurants, while urging people to stay home as much as possible.

    TRUST ISSUES

    Suga has been criticised for what many observers have said was a slow and confusing response to the pandemic. That is a sharp reversal from the strong support he enjoyed at the start of his tenure, when he was perceived as a "man of the people" capable of pushing through reforms and taking on the stodgy bureaucracy.

    Among the most controversial moves has been a scheme that subsidised local tourism, encouraging millions to travel domestically. That programme was put on hold late last year.

    Political analyst Atsuo Ito said he saw two major problems with Suga's response to the pandemic: that it was incremental and slow, and that he was a poor communicator.

    In his previous role as chief cabinet secretary and top government spokesman, Suga had held twice-daily press conferences.

    "He has almost no skill at messaging. Even at press conferences he's looking down and reading notes. That doesn't invite trust from citizens... The result is that his support ratings are falling," Ito said.

    Suga's approval rate fell below those who disapproved for the first time in an NHK poll since he took office in September - by 40% to 41%.

    The poll also showed 88% think Feb. 7 is too early to lift the state of emergency - a view shared by many experts.

    "It's very unlikely we'll see cases go down after just a month," said Yoshihito Niki, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Showa University Hospital.

    "Japan has been called a success story and there's been discussion about the so-called Factor X - something that makes the Japanese more resistant to the virus - but that's a complete fantasy," Niki said. (Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Elaine Lies, Mari Saito; Writing by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Christopher Cushing)

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