Photo/Illutration Visitors to the Abeno Harukas observation deck enjoy the view from Japan's tallest building. Business resumed on May 21 for the first time since the structure closed its doors in early March. (Tatsuo Kanai)

Japan is close to lifting the state of emergency over the novel coronavirus for three prefectures in the Kansai region as the ratio of new infections there has fallen below the standard set by the government to end the declaration.

A government panel of experts on infectious diseases and economics approved lifting the state of emergency in Osaka, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures at a meeting on the morning of May 21.

A formal decision by the government’s task force handling the coronavirus pandemic is expected in the evening.

The latest move means only five areas will still be covered by the state of emergency--Tokyo and Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, and Hokkaido.

But the government will consider lifting the state of emergency for those prefectures sometime early next week after assessing the trend in new infections there as well as whether adequate medical care can be provided, a government source said.

At the May 21 panel meeting, Yasutoshi Nishimura, the state minister in charge of economic revitalization who also oversees the government handling of the coronavirus pandemic, said the state of emergency should be lifted for the three Kansai prefectures because the number of new COVID-19 infections had decreased to a satisfactory level.

A major standard used by the government is the number of new infections per 100,000 people over the past week. If a prefecture has a ratio of under 0.5 new infections over that period, the state of emergency can be lifted.

Figures compiled by The Asahi Shimbun as of May 20 found that the ratios for the three Kansai prefectures were between 0.04 and 0.24.

In contrast, the ratio for Hokkaido was 0.69, while the Tokyo ratio was 0.56 and the Kanagawa Prefecture ratio was 1.08, all above the 0.5 benchmark.

The government had earlier decided that it would rely on the greater metropolitan areas of the four Kanto prefectures and the three Kansai prefectures to determine when to lift the state of emergency in the prefectures due to the large volume of commuter traffic within the two metropolitan areas.

Government officials have also said the 0.5 ratio was not a strict standard so even if a region exceeded the figure, the state of emergency could still be lifted based on a comprehensive assessment of the state of the medical care structure as well as the monitoring framework in terms of polymerase chain reaction tests to determine if an individual has been infected.

That overall assessment will likely be a factor in deciding whether to lift the state of emergency for the five remaining prefectures.

(This article was written by Dai Nagata and Ayako Nakada.)