Japan braces for hundreds more cases as another China city locked down


Japan is bracing for potentially hundreds of additional cases of the coronavirus onboard the stricken Princess Diamond, as experts warned that the country was still in the “early stages” of the outbreak.

The passengers evacuated from the ship face further uncertainty too, with the US and Australian citizens set for another two weeks of quarantine after arriving home at sites in California, Texas and Darwin. Hundreds of American passengers have flown back to United States and Australia said it would follow suit on Wednesday

Onboard the Diamond Princess, 355 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19 out of an original tally of about 3,600 passengers and crew, and after testing of 1,219. Forty American passengers who were diagnosed with the virus have already been transferred to hospitals in Japan.

Some Diamond Princess passengers face another two weeks in isolation if they have shared a cabin with someone who tests positive, Japan’s health ministry said on Sunday.

The total number of people infected around the world has now climbed to more than 71,000 on Monday, including another 2,048 confirmed cases in China, where total deaths stand at 1,770. Five people have died outside China. Of the 105 deaths reported in China on Monday, 100 were in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak.

Cities in Hubei have stepped up measures to stop the virus’s spread. Xiaogan city – which has a population of nearly 5 million people and the second highest number of confirmed cases in China – ordered residents to stay in their homes or face detention of up to 10 days.

State media reported that “all vehicles including motorcycles, electric bikes, bicycles and tricycles are prohibited from driving on the road”. Xiaogan, 70km from the city of Wuhan, has 3,279 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and has recorded 70 deaths.

Japan, which has recorded one fatality, is the worst-affected country after China. Six new cases of the coronavirus were detected on Sunday, apart from those on the Diamond Princess. Overall, Japan has 413 confirmed cases of the virus, including one death, a woman in her 80s. Other confirmed cases include two hospital doctors and a patient at the same hospital in Wakayama prefecture, western Japan.

On Monday, the outbreak forced a hospital near Tokyo to stop accepting new patients, and raised the possibility of a scaled back Tokyo Marathon next month.

The hospital, in Sagamihara, about 50km west of Tokyo, said it would suspend new admissions because one of its nurses had tested positive for the virus after treating a patient who later died of the disease.

A member of the diagnosis team from Japan’s health ministry also tested positive for the disease, the ministry said on Monday. The virus’s spread in Japan has prompted calls for the government to speed up testing and offer clearer advice on when to seek medical help.

Tokyo’s marathon, scheduled for 1 March, was to feature 38,000 runners – 37,500 for the marathon and 500 for the 10km race – but organisers said they had told participants from China to consider avoiding the event, Kyodo news agency said. The marathon doubles as a qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics, preparations for which have already been disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis.

Analysts also warned of potentially “huge” damage to Japan’s economy, saying that the widening fallout from the virus was damaging output and tourism, undermining growth and risking pushing the country into recession.

The economy shrank at the fastest pace in almost six years in the December quarter – down 6.3% on an annualised basis – as last year’s sales tax hike hit consumer and business spending, highlighting a fragile outlook made worse by growing coronavirus risks.

Taro Saito, executive research fellow at NLI Research Institute, said: “If this epidemic is not contained by the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the damage to the economy will be huge.”

There is concern, too, over the growing number of reported cases in Japan involving people who have not visited China recently or knowingly had direct contact with people arriving from the country.

“Most infected individuals seem to experience mild conditions similar to the common cold and may not realise that they have the disease, risking possibly spreading it to others, said Takaji Wakita, chief of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who headed the expert panel. “It is expected that domestic infections will continue,” Wakita said, according to Kyodo.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, told ministers the government would increase the number of medical facilities that can accept infected people to 800 from the current 726.

“We agreed that the present situation represents the early stage of a domestic outbreak. This could progress further,” Wakita said after the first meeting of a task force at the prime minister’s office.

Pressure on Japan’s health services increased again on Monday with the arrival in Tokyo of a government-chartered flight carrying 65 Japanese nationals from Wuhan, bringing the total number repatriated from the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak to 763.

Japan’s health minister, Katsunobu Kato, urged the public to avoid crowds and “non-essential gatherings”, including notoriously packed commuter trains and warned the nation was “entering a new phase” in the outbreak of the virus.

Koji Wada, a professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare, told the Asahi Shimbun: “There is the possibility that the infection may have spread to people well beyond the groups of patients who have been identified.”

The government has made extra funds available for emergency countermeasures it says will be in place by the end of March. They include quadrupling the diagnosis capacity at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and shortening the time required for a coronavirus test from the current six hours to 30 minutes.

Employers in Japan are also starting to feel the effects of the outbreak. On Monday, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), one of the country’s biggest firms, said it was urging its 200,000 group employees to work from home or stagger their commutes.

On the Diamond Princess, several other governments are scrambling to evacuate their citizens from the vessel, with Canada, Italy, Israel and Hong Kong poised to follow Washington’s lead.

Americans on the Diamond Princess evacuation flights, which left Tokyo’s Haneda airport early on Monday, will spend another two weeks in quarantine once they return to the US. They were told they were being evacuated “out of an abundance of caution” and being brought back to the US for further monitoring.

The US embassy in Tokyo said the evacuation had been organised partly to “reduce the burden on the Japanese healthcare system”.

Other Agencies contributed to this report.