Japan to end state of emergency for six prefectures this month

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FILE PHOTO: An empty street near the previously crowded Kiyomizu temple, a popular attraction among tourists, is pictured amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kyoto

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese government said on Friday it would end a state of emergency in six prefectures at the end of this month, a week earlier than scheduled, as new coronavirus cases decline.

Tokyo and three other prefectures would remain under the restrictions until early March, it added.

Japan had placed 11 of its 47 prefectures under a state of emergency in January as a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. One of those prefectures, Tochigi, has already emerged early from the restrictions.

"Even after the removal in the six prefectures, we will continue to respond (to the virus) with vigilance," Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, adding the government would implement new policies in March to test new strains of the virus more quickly.

Emergency coronavirus measures will now be removed in Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi, Gifu and Fukuoka prefectures on Feb. 28, Suga said.

But, Tokyo and its three neighbouring prefectures will remain under the state of emergency until March 7, he added, repeating calls for the public to avoid group meals.

Under emergency measures, Japan asked bars and restaurants to close by 8 p.m. (1100 GMT) and companies to strive for more telecommuting. It also suspended a popular "Go To Travel" subsidised domestic tourism programme.

Coronavirus infections have fallen significantly since peaking in early January, including in the capital, Tokyo, which is due to host the Summer Olympic Games from late July.

There were concerns that lifting the state of emergency could see young people in particular become complacent, leading to a potential rise in infections, said Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who oversees the government's coronavirus response.

"We need to keep strict anti-infection measures in place," aid Nishimura.

Japan has recorded about 427,000 coronavirus cases and 7,720 deaths as of Thursday, according to the health ministry.

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Yoshifumi Takemoto, Ju-min Park; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Stephen Coates, Shri Navaratnam and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)