Japans government is introducing a contentious new policy in which coronavirus patients with moderate symptoms will isolate at home instead of in hospitals, as new cases surge in Tokyo to record levels during the Olympic Games.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Sugas plan, which aims to save hospital beds almost exclusively for those with serious symptoms or at risk of developing them, is a major policy shift as new cases in the capital have more than tripled since the Olympics began on July 23.
Tokyo reported 4,166 new cases on Wednesday, an all-time high since the pandemic began early last year.
The new policy, introduced this week, was debated in parliament on Wednesday. Opposition as well as some governing party lawmakers and experts charged that the lives of people isolating at home without adequate care would be at risk.
Suga, who has been criticized for insisting on hosting the Olympics despite public virus fears, says there is no evidence linking the upsurge in cases to the Games.
Infections, propelled by the more contagious delta variant, could accelerate to 10,000 a day by mid-August, some experts say. They called for a current state of emergency in Tokyo and four other areas to be expanded nationwide. The emergency measures, which focus on alcohol bans and shorter hours for eateries, are increasingly ignored by the public, which has tired of restrictions.
Japan warned 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 was leading to 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," 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," Tamura said, adding the policy shift was a move to deal with the unexpectedly fast spread of the new variant.
In Tokyo, more than 14,000 patients with mild symptoms are currently isolating at home more than a 10-fold increase from a month ago and about 8,400 others are waiting for beds in hospitals or special hotels.
Opposition lawmakers criticized Suga for not increasing hospital capacity sufficiently despite warnings about the fast-spreading delta variant. Coronavirus treatment in Japan is limited to public and university hospitals that have adequate facilities and expertise.
Lives that can be saved will be lost, said Kazunori Yamanoi, a lawmaker from the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, calling isolation at home abandonment.
Dr. Shigeru Omi, the government's top medical adviser, said patients at risk of developing serious symptoms while staying at home will need to be given proper support by community physicians who make household visits.