Hundreds of Japanese and foreign passengers were set to disembark from a coronavirus-hit cruise ship near Tokyo on Friday amid growing disquiet in Japan about whether the government is doing enough to stop the virus spreading.
The scheduled departure of more than 400 passengers from the Diamond Princess after weeks in quarantine comes as the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a low-level travel advisory for Japan. Meanwhile some public gatherings in Tokyo and elsewhere are being scrapped in a bid to contain the virus, which has killed more than 2,200 in mainland China so far.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will either cancel or postpone major indoor events it has sponsored for the next three weeks, Jiji news agency said. A Tokyo official was unable to immediately confirm the report.
More than 600 travelers aboard the cruise liner, quarantined off Yokohama since arriving on Feb. 3 with 3,700 people aboard, have been infected with the virus. Two of them - both Japanese in their 80s - died on Thursday, and some 80 people around Japan, including 25 in the capital of Tokyo, had tested positive for the virus.
On Friday, three more people tested positive in the northern island of Hokkaido, two of them schoolchildren, Hokkaido's governor said at a briefing.
While foreign travelers leaving the ship face more quarantine at home, Japanese do not - a situation that has stoked concerns about Japan's quarantine practices. A number of countries have flown nationals who were aboard the liner home: Two Australians tested positive for the virus after their arrival, Australian authorities said on Friday.
At a briefing on Friday, Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga defended the government's handling of those aboard the cruise ship as appropriate. More than 1,000 passengers and crew will remain aboard after Friday's disembarkations.
Suga faced questions about one of the two former passengers on the ship who died, an 84-year-old woman who developed a fever on Feb. 5 but was not tested for the virus until a week later.
"The woman was removed from the ship on the 12th after the fever continued for days," he said. "A decision was made not to wait for the test results before moving her to hospital to protect the health of those remaining on the ship."
Many Japanese on social media expressed concern about their government's handling of the situation.
"There are still crew testing positive on the ship, yet people are being allowed to disembark - and told it's okay to use public transportation to get home, then told by the health ministry to avoid using public transportation after they are home," wrote one Twitter user using the handle 'Homo Sapiens'.
"What the heck is this?"
In the United States, the CDC said in a note on its website that it had put Japan at "Watch Level 1", the least serious of a three-level travel advisory scale. It said that while it didn't recommend postponing or cancelling trips to Japan because of the virus, travelers should take precautions including "avoiding contact with sick people" and rigorous hand-washing.
In the latest in a series of sports events to be curtailed or canceled, a women's marathon in the central Japanese city of Nagoya set for March 8 will be limited to elite runners only, while the Nagoya City Marathon scheduled for the same day has been canceled, organizers said.
Both the Tokyo Marathon, which will be limited to elite runners, and the Nagoya race are Olympic qualifying events for Japanese marathon runners, deepening concern about whether the Summer Games set to start on July 24 in the capital will go on as planned.
Chief cabinet secretary Suga said the government would take all steps necessary to secure the Games in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.
"The International Olympic Committee has told us that they consider Japan's handling of the new coronavirus outbreak to be appropriate," he added.