Press Conference by the Prime Minister
February 17, 2022
I would like to begin by expressing my deepest sympathy to all those suffering from the COVID-19.
While the increase in the number of infected cases remains high in Japan, we have so far been able to keep the infection level lower than in other countries. This has been made possible thanks to the cooperation from the people and all-out efforts made by medical professionals, caregivers, personnel at public health centers and quarantine stations and other essential workers. Once again, I would like to express my sincere respect and gratitude to all those people.
Since assuming office as Prime Minister, I have always responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a worst-case scenario approach, which is the key principle of crisis management. In particular, we could not have been more careful in dealing with the Omicron strain since the beginning of its outbreak. We were convinced that, with the scientific properties of the Omicron strain yet to be clarified, the lives of the people could only be protected by such a careful approach.
Around three months since the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the Omicron strain as a variant of concern, its scientific properties are starting to be revealed, including with the help of the accumulated knowledge in countries around the world. In addition, thanks to the cooperation from the public, the spread of the Omicron strain has started to slow down across Japan.
If you compare the number of infected cases between last week and this week, you will find that Tokyo and 35 prefectures are now seeing a decrease with the numerical indicator falling below 1. In Tokyo, the number of daily infected cases is decreasing compared to a week earlier for a ninth consecutive day. Risks remain, though, that the number of severely ill cases will later increase, as pointed out by experts. We will deal with the pandemic with continued vigilance and the utmost sense of urgency.
On this basis, I believe that we should now start to move toward the exit of the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in a gradual manner, while at the same time maintaining our basic and careful approach in implementing the anti-infection measures. In other words, we should prepare for the next phase in a step-by-step manner.
I would like to share my thoughts on such matters with the people today.
Firstly, let me explain how we will maintain our careful approach. I have so far mentioned that we should keep in mind three key principles in dealing with the Omicron strain. First and foremost, we must protect the lives of the people. The second principle is to respond to the anxiety of the large number of people with mild symptoms who are recuperating at home. The third is to keep social and economic activities running as much as possible. Based on those principles, we have taken a wide range of measures while closely communicating primarily with local governments, medical professionals and experts.
From the perspective of protecting the lives of the people, we formulated in November last year the “Overall picture of measures to ensure security against the next spread of infections" and went on to take additional measures to strengthen the medical care delivery system to ensure continued provision of medical services particularly to the elderly and those with underlying diseases who are at high risk of becoming severely ill. In terms of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients, we have increased by 1.3 times the capacity nationwide from the time of the previous peak of infection, with particular emphasis in Tokyo where the capacity has been increased by 1.8 times, including by installing additional beds at temporary medical facilities.
As a result, while the number of infected cases is about four times that of last summer, we now have more capacity to accommodate severely ill patients and are providing necessary medical care, unlike last summer when hospitals were overflowing with patients waiting to be admitted.
From the second perspective of responding to the anxiety of those with mild symptoms, we have made special efforts to strengthen local medical systems with the cooperation of some 25,000 medical institutions and 18,000 pharmacies, while at the same time ensuring the availability of orally administered therapeutics, often referred to as a game changer. We have already delivered to medical institutions and pharmacies across the nation a total of 130,000 doses of Mornupiravir developed by Merck, around 58,000 of which have been administered to help prevent severe illness. Since the beginning of this year, neutralizing antibody drugs, such as Zebudi, have been administered to 66,000 people. The widely distributed Remdesivir has also been added to the treatment options for mild cases. Also with the approval last week of Pfizer's antiviral drug, a variety of treatment methods are now being established. The Government is also providing full support for clinical trials of domestically produced orally administered therapeutics. Once its safety and efficacy have been confirmed, we will promptly approve it to ensure required domestic supply.
From the third perspective of keeping economic and social activities running as much as possible, we have taken a series of measures based on scientific knowledge provided by experts, such as the shortening of the quarantine period for those who have been in close contact with COVID-19 patients; reviewing the criteria for admission and discharge of COVID-19 patients; and putting in place effective behavioral restrictions.
Those basic approaches remain extremely important to make responses down the road. Given the risk of severely ill cases increasing at later stages, we will stay the course even if the number of infected cases steadily decreases.
With regard to areas that have yet to see clear signs of decrease in the number of infected cases and occupancy rate of hospital beds, we will keep in place the priority measures to prevent the spread of disease to continue to make efforts to contain the spread of infection while maintaining a sense of urgency. For this purpose, we plan to extend by March 6 the priority measures to prevent the spread of disease already in place in 17 prefectures, 16 of which are among 21 prefectures where the measures are to expire on February 20 and the remaining one of which is Wakayama Prefecture where the measures are to expire on February 27. We will tomorrow consult the expert committee over the planned extension before reporting the matter to the Diet. This is how and where we will continue to be careful, although we also plan to implement the following three measures to pave the way for the exit of the sixth wave of infection.
Firstly, the priority measures to prevent the spread of disease will be lifted in areas where infections have started to slow down in light of a comprehensive consideration of factors such as the occupancy rate of hospital beds. Among the 21 prefectures where the priority measures are to expire on February 20, Yamagata, Shimane, Yamaguchi, Oita and Okinawa Prefectures are where we will first lift the measures on the same day.
Secondly, we will promote the booster shots. Thanks to the efforts made by the people concerned, the pace of vaccination has increased since February 15 to about one million doses per day on the basis of VRS (Vaccination Record System) input. We will continue to make utmost efforts to ensure to achieve more than a million doses per day on a stable basis while maintaining a sense of urgency. The booster shots have been promoted by prefectural and other local governments across the nation, while the vaccination at workplaces have started this week ahead of our initial plan. We hope that as many people as possible will get vaccinated to protect themselves and their families, and to promote anti-infection measures in our society as a whole.
Thirdly and finally, let me mention the review of our border measures. Our strict border measures have so far provided us the time to improve our domestic response and systems, such as securing hospital beds and promoting vaccination. From March 1, we will gradually ease the framework of our border measures, while still maintaining the strictest standards among the G7 countries by adhering to basic conditions such as conducting inspections, monitoring behavior and setting quarantine periods for cases at high risk of spreading infections.
Specifically, the quarantine period after entry into Japan will be reviewed based on the knowledge accumulated through the battle against the Omicron strain. The period will in principle be shortened to three days from the current seven days on condition that the person tests negative on the third day of the period while also going through tests ahead of entry and at the time of entry. Nevertheless, those at high risk will be required to spend more time at isolation facilities. Meanwhile, no quarantine period will be set for those who have received a booster shot and are arriving from non-designated countries where infection has slowed down. Those measures are intended to be comparable to those introduced in other major economies. Foreign nationals newly entering Japan will be permitted to enter only for purposes other than sightseeing, under the supervision of the person in charge of receiving them. The application process for receiving companies and organizations will be simplified by introducing a unified online system. We will return the daily cap on the number of those entering Japan from 3,500 to 5,000, while considering the gradual increase in the level of international human movement in light of the upcoming demand for Japanese nationals returning home.
Those three major points are what I hope to convey from the perspective of preparing for the exit of the sixth wave.
Let me repeat that our preparatory measures toward the exit of the sixth wave are based on the premise that the infection level has slowed down. The Government will ensure the availability of hospital beds and orally administered therapeutics, while asking for your continued cooperation in basic anti-infection measures, such as wearing masks, washing hands, disinfection and ventilation.
In addition, we must pay close attention to the possibility of the existing Omicron strain being replaced by the BA.2 lineage down the road, which could worsen the infection situation again. If there is any sign of deterioration in the infection situation, we will immediately review our response. On the other hand, if there is a clearer sign of the sixth wave approaching its exit, we will make further efforts to restore economic and social activities.
I know that the situation does not allow us to be complacent with painful anxiety still prevalent, but I also hope that we will be able to move forward together to gradually get our daily lives back to normal. I think we are now facing the most difficult moment. I sincerely ask for your cooperation for another while so that we can overcome these difficulties together.
Lastly, I would like to talk about the situation in Ukraine. We are closely monitoring the situation with grave concern, but the situation is unpredictable. On February 11, we raised the travel alert for Ukraine to level 4. We strongly urge all Japanese nationals residing in Ukraine to evacuate as soon as possible. We will continue to do our utmost to protect Japanese nationals including by arranging chartered aircraft in neighboring countries.
On February 14, we held a meeting of the four relevant ministers of the NSC (National Security Council) to discuss the Government's response, including the protection of Japanese nationals, while, on February 15 and 16, I had telephone summit talks with President Zelensky of Ukraine, President von der Leyen of the European Commission and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom. I expressed Japan’s support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and stated that a change in the status quo by force would be unacceptable, while pledging at least 100 million dollars in assistance to Ukraine. The leaders and I also agreed to make persistent diplomatic efforts to pave the way for the de-escalation. President von der Leyen, meanwhile, deeply expressed her appreciation for the diversion of LNG (liquefied natural gas) shipment to Europe decided by the Government of Japan. We also agreed that Japan and the European Union will cooperate in energy security.
Japan will continue to make persistent diplomatic efforts for de-escalation and will appropriately respond to the actual situation in cooperation with the G7 and the rest of the international community.