Japan warns of unprecedented Covid spread as cases hit new high

TOKYO: Japan warned yesterday that coronavirus infections were surging at an unprecedented pace as new cases hit a record high in Tokyo, overshadowing the Olympics and adding to doubts over the government's handling of the pandemic.

The Delta variant is causing a spread of infections "unseen in the past", Health Minister Norihisa Tamura said, as he defended a new policy of asking patients with milder symptoms to isolate at home rather than going to hospital.

"The pandemic has entered a new phase... Unless we have enough beds, we can't bring people to hospital. We're acting pre-emptively on this front," Mr Tamura told Parliament.

But he signalled the chance of rolling back the policy, as the decision to ask some sick people to stay at home has drawn criticism from medical experts as putting lives at risk.

"If things don't turn out as we expect, we can roll back the policy," Mr Tamura said, adding the policy shift was a move to deal with the unexpectedly fast spread of the new variant.

Japan has seen a sharp increase in cases. Tokyo reported a record 4,166 new cases yesterday. Nationwide, newly reported cases totalled a record of more than 14,200, according to public broadcaster NHK.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Monday only Covid-19 patients who were seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so would be hospitalised, while others should isolate at home, a shift in policy some fear may lead to an increase in deaths.

Officials in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have sought to withdraw the policy, the Jiji news agency reported yesterday, joining similar calls made by opposition lawmakers.

Polls have shown many Japanese people opposed the holding the Olympics while the country lagged in efforts to contain the pandemic and vaccinate the population.

Mr Suga and Olympics organisers have said there is no link between the Games and the spike in cases. But senior medical adviser Shigeru Omi told Parliament that hosting the Games may have affected public sentiment and eroded the impact of government requests for people to stay home.

"Political leaders are sending out messages to the public in earnest but probably not as strongly and consistently as hoped," Mr Omi said. "We're seeing Covid-19 clusters emerge more broadly including at schools and offices."