TOKYO: Japan’s prime minister and his deputy won’t attend meetings together to cut coronavirus risks as pressure for a lockdown builds, with domestic cases topping 2,000 and a minister saying the country’s containment strategy was stretched to the limit.

Shinzo Abe told cabinet members on Tuesday (Mar 31) that his second-in-command, Taro Aso, would no longer be present at any meeting the prime minister attends, a government spokesman said, in a move to guard leadership against infection that could hamper Japan’s efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

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Last week British PM Boris Johnson was obliged to switch to running the country from isolation after testing positive for the virus. 

Infections have now exceeded 770,000 cases worldwide, killing more than 37,000, with the United States, Italy and Spain overtaking mainland China, where the virus originated late in 2019, in confirmed cases.

Abe’s step came as Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said that Japan was not yet in a situation to declare a state of emergency, triggering a potential lockdown, but that the situation was precarious.

“We’re just barely holding it together,” Nishimura told reporters on Tuesday. “If we loosen our grip even a little, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a sudden surge (in cases).”

Speculation that a lockdown may come soon has been intense in the capital, fuelled by rising numbers of domestic cases.

A centre for disabled people in Chiba prefecture, east of Tokyo, found seven more infections on Tuesday, pushing the national total past 2,000. A total of 59 deaths have been recorded, according to the tally by national broadcaster NHK.

READ: Japanese comedian Ken Shimura dies from coronavirus 

With limited testing for the virus taking place, doubts linger in the capital about how widespread it may be.

In a survey by popular chat app Line of users in Tokyo and neighbouring prefectures – conducted in partnership with the health ministry – around 7.1 per cent of nearly 64,000 respondents reported they were suffering at least one symptom associated with coronavirus, including high fever or a bad cough, between Mar 27 and 30.

The presence of such symptoms does not prove infection. 

But at around 4,500, the number of people self-reporting symptoms in the survey was markedly higher than Tokyo’s official number of 443 confirmed cases as of Monday, stoking widespread comment among social media users.

NO BINDING LOCKDOWN

Only last Tuesday, with a lockdown already in the offing, the Japanese government and International Olympic Committee succumbed to intense pressure from athletes and sporting bodies around the world to delay Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Games for a year because of the global outbreak.

Some businesses in the capital are taking the initiative to curtail operations even ahead of any lockdown. On Tuesday landmark department store operator Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd said it would close six stores in Tokyo on weekends through Apr 12.

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But any lockdown in Japan would look different from mandatory measures in some parts of Europe and the United States. By law, local authorities are only permitted to issue requests for people to stay at home, which are not binding.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has asked citizens in the capital to avoid unnecessary outings, while her counterpart in Osaka, Japan’s second-biggest city told reporters on Monday he thought the national government should declare a state of emergency, according to local media.

A director of the country’s top organisation of doctors has said the government should declare a state of emergency before it’s too late.

Elsewhere Abe said in a call with World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom on Monday evening that development of medicines and vaccines would be crucial to contain the outbreak.

Abe said Japan intends to promote clinical research on an anti-flu medicine called Favipiravir with other countries as a treatment for the virus.

The drug, also known as Avigan, was developed by Fujifilm Holdings Corp. Shares of Fujifilm closed up 2.2 per cent after climbing as much as 6.6 per cent in Tokyo.

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