UPDATE 1-Japan PM, deputy avoid joint meetings to cut coronavirus risk as lockdown pressure builds

TOKYO (Reuters) – 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.

FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend the regular session of parliament in Tokyo, Japan, January 20, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Shinzo Abe told cabinet members on Tuesday 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.

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.

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.

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 requested citizens in the capital to stay indoors, 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.

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on Tuesday Japan is urging its citizens not to travel to 73 countries and regions – a third of all countries in the world.

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 climbed 6.6% in morning trading in Tokyo.

Reporting by Takashi Umekawa, Rocky Swift and Linda Sieg; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Kenneth Maxwell

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