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Japan widens virus restrictions as Omicron variant surges in cities

Associated Press Reporter

Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan from today as the country widens its Covid-19 restrictions due to the Omicron variant.

The variant has caused cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.

The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last until February 13.

With three other prefectures – Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi – under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one third of the country.

While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, few have received a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious Omicron variant of coronavirus.

The health ministry has approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged five to 11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.

Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring restaurants to close early and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks, as the government seeks to minimise damage to the economy.

Under the latest measures, most restaurants are asked to close by 8pm or 9pm, while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans.

In Tokyo, certified restaurants that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9pm while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.

Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.

Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on restaurants, noting that infections show no signs of slowing in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks.

After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing requests, Japanese people are increasingly becoming less co-operative to such measures. People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.

Tokyo’s main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work on Friday morning.

Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreign entrants when the Omicron variant began spreading in other countries.

Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through to the end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.

Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infections on Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.

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