TOKYO, May 22 -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday lifted the state of emergency in the western Japanese prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, as the spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed enough to justify the gradual easing of curbs on economic activity.
The Tokyo metropolitan area and Hokkaido in northern Japan will remain under the state of emergency but Abe said they may see it lifted as early as Monday after a review by health experts, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.
The coronavirus emergency has ended in 42 of the country's 47 prefectures. In rejuvenating a recession-hit economy, the remaining five prefectures -- Tokyo, Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama and Hokkaido -- play an integral part as they make up about a third of national gross domestic product.
"In the areas where the emergency has been lifted, social and economic activities can increase in stages," Abe said at a meeting of a government task force on the coronavirus response.
"The challenge of creating a new normal is beginning across the country," he added.
An advisory panel gave the go-ahead to the government move after weighing certain criteria -- the number of newly reported cases over one week, the availability of medical care and the capacity to provide virus tests and monitor the spread of the virus.
In the Tokyo area and Hokkaido, the number of infections has been falling and the situation faced by hospitals has been improving, Abe said. Still, the premier asked people in the areas to avoid nonessential outings and travel across prefectural borders to contain the virus.
Abe faces the task of sustaining the downward trend in new cases while allowing more social and economic activities to resume.
The government is compiling a second extra budget for the current fiscal year to boost support for struggling households and businesses.
The governors of Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo decided to end most of their business suspension requests, while asking people to continue to stay away from nightclubs and live music venues to prevent group infections.
"I don't have to tell you not to go out. Instead, I want you to be careful about how you go out," Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura told reporters, urging people to take precautionary steps such as wearing face masks and avoid the "3Cs" -- confined and crowded spaces and close human contact.
Over 17,100 coronavirus cases have been reported in Japan and Tokyo is the worst-hit among the 47 prefectures with over 5,100. The tally includes about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama in February.
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