Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a meeting at the new Covid-19 control headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Thursday. Abe called on public schools to close nationwide from March 2 to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Photo: AFP / STR / Jiji Press

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called upon schools to close nationwide from March 2 for several weeks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The request came on a day when organizations were rushing to cancel events that would bring numbers of people into close contact.

“The government considers the health and safety of children above anything else,” Abe said.

“We request all primary, junior high and high schools … across the nation to close temporarily from March 2 next week until their spring break.”

The spring break for public schools usually starts in late March in Japan and lasts several weeks.

“Efforts to prevent the spread of infections among children are being made in various areas,” Abe added. 

Many public elementary schools and junior high schools in northern Hokkaido were already closed on Thursday after the governor requested public schools to close for about a week.

The city of Osaka also said it will close its kindergartens, elementary and junior high schools from Saturday for two weeks.

Abe’s call comes after the government urged organizers of major events to consider cancelling them, and called on businesses to allow employees to work from home or commute off-peak.

Youngsters react after noticing the closure of the Special Exhibition at Heiseikan of Tokyo National Museum in Taito Ward, Tokyo, on Thursday. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the previous day had called for the cancellation, postponement or downsizing of national level sporting and cultural events where many people would gather for the next two weeks. Later on Thursday he called for a temporary schools closure. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Authorities have said the coming two to three weeks will be critical in determining whether they can stem the outbreak of the virus, which has infected nearly 200 people in the country and been linked to the deaths of three.

Japan has also struggled to deal with the fallout from a cruise ship that it quarantined off its coast, where more than 700 people tested positive for the virus. Four people who became sick on the ship have died.

“It’s extremely important to prevent one patient cluster from creating another and we think we should take thorough measures,” Abe said at a cabinet-level meeting on the virus.

He also urged ministers to work on legislation for minimising the negative impact on the economy and daily lives of Japanese.

Expert’s warning

Earlier, in an interview, an expert advising the government warned that Japan is at a “crossroads” in its bid to prevent a major coronavirus outbreak and may need to reconsider the Olympics if domestic transmissions are not brought under control.

Norio Ohmagari, an infectious disease specialist, said he believes measures being taken by the government can still prevent the virus from spreading more widely, but that the next three weeks will be critical.

“We are now on the crossroads for the containment of the Covid-19 … within our country,” said Ohmagari, director of the department of infectious diseases at Japan’s National Center for Global Health and Medicine.

Japan has confirmed at least 186 domestic infections, including three deaths since the outbreak began, and the government has come under pressure for a relatively hands-off approach.

But Ohmagari, who helps advise the government, defended measures, including requesting – but not ordering – the cancellation of major events, and encouraging teleworking and off-peak commuting.

“If we keep going with what we are doing right now we do have significant possibility for the containment or the elimination of this Covid-19,” he said.

He conceded, however, that there is still significant uncertainty, which has cast a shadow as Tokyo gears up to host the Olympics from July.

Ohmagari said he would want to see domestic transmissions of the virus brought under control before the Games.

“We have to see the situation at least three weeks from now,” he said.

“If we can contain the secondary transmission within the country … I think that’s a very good sign, and it’s a very good signal for us to decide ‘go’ for the Olympics and Paralympics.”

But if infections are continuing domestically, authorities will face a “big, big decision.”

“If there is a significant outbreak or … a pandemic of this kind of infectious disease, we really have to think about holding this kind of large event. Is it feasible or not?”

‘Not perfect’

The government’s handling of the crisis has come under scrutiny internationally and domestically, with opposition lawmakers questioning whether enough tests have been administered.

Ohmagari acknowledged that “limiting the number of tests makes grasping the true number of cases impossible,” but said the tests could not always detect infections.

“Catching all the people who are having this virus is impossible” he said. “We can see the trend.”

Japan has also faced significant criticism for its handling of a cruise ship placed in quarantine after a former passenger contracted the virus.

More than 700 people who were on board the Diamond Princess have so far tested positive for the virus, with multiple new cases emerging while the ship was in quarantine and even among passengers allowed off the boat after initially testing negative.

“The process with the quarantine has not been perfect,” Ohmagari said. 

“I think that is a fact, we are now seeing it.”

But he said the government had faced a difficult situation with limited capacity to conduct a quarantine onshore and pressure not to put those on board through a second isolation period.

“Doing more than 14 days of quarantine … might have been the way to go,” he said.

“But I also have to say that this process … must have been quite difficult,”

He cautioned there was no evidence yet that passengers had infected others after leaving the ship.

The crew itself on Thursday began leaving the ship for quarantine quarters elsewhere.

“We have to see what happens in the next coming one to two week,” Ohmagari said. “If the secondary infections from the passengers of the cruise happen, we have to really think about it,” he said.

“These kind of ways may have not been perfect.”

Twice struck

A woman in Japan who contracted the new coronavirus and was released from a hospital after recovering has tested positive again, officials said Thursday. This is a first, a local official in Osaka said.

The woman in her 40s was first confirmed as infected with the coronavirus on January 29. She was working on a tour bus guiding tourists from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, in January. The driver of the bus was also diagnosed with the virus.

After being discharged from the hospital she tested negative for the virus on February 6, although she still had a cough at the time. She had no symptoms a week later, but returned to the doctor on February 21 complaining of a sore throat and chest pains.

On Wednesday, she tested positive for the coronavirus for a second time, officials said.