Photo/Illutration Customers wearing face masks observe social distancing as they form a line to enter a KFC outlet in Yokohama near Tokyo on May 14. (AP Photo)

The government is considering lifting its state of emergency over the novel coronavirus pandemic for major metropolitan areas in groups, such as Tokyo and neighboring prefectures in one bloc and Osaka and nearby prefectures in another.

The prefectures of Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto will likely be freed of restrictions when the government announces its decision on May 21, according to sources.

Currently, the main northernmost main island of Hokkaido, along with Saitama, Chiba, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, remain under the state of emergency declared by the government last month.

Three criteria will be assessed for lifting the curbs: the spread of contagion; whether hospitals have sufficient capacity to cope with patients with COVID-19; and the capacity of the areas in question to conduct diagnostic testing.

To gauge the spread of contagion, the government will consider total new cases per 100,000 people in the most recent week.

If the figure is up to 0.5 or so, it will determine that the criteria is met.

But even if the figure is close to 1.0 or so, the government will not rule out relaxing its restrictions. It will weigh all related factors in a comprehensive manner if the number of new cases is steadily declining or the ratio of virus carriers whose routes of transmission is unknown remains small, the sources said.

In addition, a senior Abe administration official said the government plans to lift the state of emergency for an entire metropolitan area where people frequently travel within the zone for work or because they live there.

For example, if Tokyo is selected, so will Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures be freed of the restrictions.

In the Kansai region, the same standard will be applied to Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures.

Data compiled by The Asahi Shimbun showed that as of May 17, new cases per 100,000 people in the most recent week ranged from 0.15 to 0.34 in those three prefectures.

Government officials said the green light to lifting the restrictions will be given if the trend continues.

As of that day, the benchmark remained below 0.5 in Chiba and Saitama prefectures, but not in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures.

Hokkaido remains a special case, and the government will consider lifting the state of emergency by looking at its own situation. The figure for the benchmark there stands at a little over 1.0.