Japan is on “maximum alert” after logging a record number of daily coronavirus infections, its prime minister said, though no immediate restrictions are planned.

The comments came as Tokyo raised its alert level to the top of its four-tier system, with local media saying the capital would report a record number of infections for a second day running.

More than 2,000 cases were recorded nationwide yesterday, with nearly 500 in Tokyo.

The figures represent a sharp rise in cases for Japan, where testing is often less widespread than in other parts of the world.

“We are now in a situation of maximum alert,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

“I ask you, the Japanese people, to fully implement principles such as wearing masks,” Mr Suga added, urging people to wear them even while talking during meals in restaurants.

The country has taken a relatively relaxed approach to virus restrictions so far – even a nationwide state of emergency in the spring carried no obligation for businesses to close or for people to stay home.

National broadcaster NHK said Mr Suga had asked expert advisers to meet today and tomorrow to examine the growing number of infections, before the government brings in any new measures.

Mr Suga said he would support regional administrations if they asked businesses to close early, and that restrictions such as limiting groups at restaurants to four people should be considered.

Even though Tokyo has now raised its alert level to the highest tier, the move does not come with automatic restrictions. Local media said the capital was unlikely to request early business closures for now.

“We are in a phase where infections are expanding rapidly, we need to be vigilant,” said Norio Ohmagari, director of Japan’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, speaking at a top-level meeting to discuss the virus situation in the capital.

He warned that traditional end-of-year parties and dry air in winter could both be risk factors for the spread of the disease.

While Japan has ramped up testing, rates are still comparatively low. In metropolitan Tokyo, home to nearly 14 million people, around 5,000-6,000 people are tested a day. 

Still, Japan has seen a relatively small outbreak so far, with close to 121,000 recorded infections and just over 1,900 deaths since the virus was first detected in the country in January.

US Covid-19 deaths pass 250,000

US coronavirus deaths passed a quarter of a million people as New York announced it would close schools to battle a rise in infections.

The US has now registered 250,426 fatalities, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University, by far the highest reported national death toll.

US states and cities were imposing a raft of new restrictions, including home confinement, the closure of indoor dining and a limit on gatherings as cases soar across the country, with more than 157,950 new infections recorded over the past 24 hours on Wednesday.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s 1,800 public schools would revert to remote learning beginning today after the Big Apple recorded a seven-day average positivity rate of three percent.

Switzerland warns ICUs ‘practically all full’

Europe meanwhile remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for 46% of new global cases and 49% of deaths last week, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Its figures additionally showed the only region where cases and deaths declined last week was Southeast Asia.

Worldwide, more than 1.3 million people have died of Covid-19 and over 55 million have been reported infected with the virus since it first surfaced in China late last year, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

In Switzerland, one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, the Swiss Society for Intensive Care Medicine (SSMI) warned that intensive care units “are practically all full.”

More beds have been added, and the Swiss military has been called in to support efforts in several areas.

A French government spokesman said authorities are unlikely to lift a partial lockdown any time soon while Portugal’s government was preparing to extend measures for two more weeks.

In Hungary, a state of emergency that enables partial lockdown measures has now been extended until February.

In Berlin, police fired water cannon to disperse thousands of unmasked protesters demonstrating against tightened restrictions.

The protesters, who have equated the restrictions to Nazi-era rules, responded by chanting “Shame! Shame!”

The protest came a day after clashes with police at a similar demonstration in the Slovak capital Bratislava attended by thousands of far-right supporters.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin voiced alarm at his country’s rising fatality rate but stopped short of introducing strict measures seen in many European countries.

Russia surpassed 2 million coronavirus cases today after reporting an additional 23,610 infections and 463 deaths related to Covid-19, both record daily rises.

Russia is fifth in the number of infections reported, with 2,015,608, behind the US, India, Brazil and France. Russia’s official death toll now stands at 34,850.

There was more encouraging news out of Belgium, which has had one of the highest death rates in Europe since the start of the pandemic, where authorities said a month-long semi-lockdown was beginning to work.

“For the first time in weeks, or even for several months, all indicators are going in the right direction, meaning they are all going down: The number of infections, hospitalisations and – for the first time – the number of deaths,” said Covid-19 Crisis Centre spokesman Yves Van Laethem.

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