Japan has extended a state of emergency in Olympic city Tokyo and three other areas until the end of May - less than two months out from the Games - to stem a surge in coronavirus cases.
The government had hoped a "short and powerful" state of emergency would contain a fourth wave of infection, but new cases in major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka are still at high levels, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said, announcing the decision on Friday.
Extending the state of emergency to May 31 from May 11 will leave a margin of under eight weeks before the July 23 start of the Tokyo Games, which were postponed last year due to the pandemic.
"There has been a rapid rise in the number of critically ill patients and deaths," Suga told a news conference, adding that stemming the spread of the virus from the younger population to vulnerable groups including the elderly was crucial. He also noted that variant strains of the virus were spreading rapidly.
Responding to a question about the public's continued unease about hosting the Olympics, Suga reiterated that Japan would be able to host a safe event while following appropriate virus containment measures.
"We are putting all our efforts into stemming the spread of infections," said Suga, after acknowledging that he was "aware" of concerns from the public about the Games.
"We believe it is possible to host a safe and secure Olympics," he said.
"We will overcome this in the near future," Suga said, promising to spearhead the government's efforts to fast-track vaccinations, aiming to administer one million shots a day to the public.
Earlier, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of pandemic measures, said the government was worried Tokyo could also run out of hospital beds soon.
Under the extended state of emergency, bars, restaurants, karaoke parlours and other places serving alcohol will remain closed, while people will be urged to avoid taking unnecessary trips.
Still, Japan and the International Olympic Committee insist the Games will take place, though foreign spectators have been banned.
A decision on domestic spectators will be made by June, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto repeated on Friday.
Hashimoto told reporters that it would be "very difficult" for International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach, to go ahead with a planned visit to Japan in the next few days.
Ucoming test events for the Olympics, including an athletics event at the weekend, will not be affected by the extension of the state of emergency.
The diving World Cup, which featured more than 200 athletes from 50 countries, was held in Tokyo this past week under the current state of emergency.
Australian Associated Press