TOKYO (Reuters) -Japan expanded regions subject to tighter coronavirus curbs to cover 70% of the country on Tuesday, as the government tried to counter a record wave of COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.
The measures, already in force in 16 prefectures, will take effect in a further 18 including the western prefectures of Kyoto and Osaka and remain in place until the middle of next month.
Nationwide cases rose above 60,000 for the first time since the pandemic began, a tally by broadcaster Fuji TV showed on Tuesday, with the capital, Tokyo, posting 12,813 new cases while the region of Osaka reported 8,612, both records.
Economy minister Daishiro Yamagiwa told reporters the central government agreed to impose tougher counter-measures in 18 more regions in response to an increase of infections and hospital admissions driven by Omicron. A panel of health experts signed off on the plan earlier in the day.
The curbs will run from Thursday until Feb. 20, empowering regional governors to ask restaurants and bars to shorten their business hours and to stop serving alcohol.
The stricter measures come as the government is shifting its approach to handling the soaring number of cases.
The health ministry announced late on Monday it will allow doctors to diagnose those who have had close contact with a COVID-19 patient and who show symptoms as being infected without the need for a test, if deemed necessary by local governments.
The new policy will enable patients to get prompt treatment, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno.
"We're presenting a policy to expand the options available to patients," he said.
Managing COVID-19 without laboratory test confirmations is similar to how doctors fight influenza in areas where "the community burden is high", said Kazuaki Jindai, a physician and researcher at Tohoku University.
"The important thing is that some people will get sick eventually and we need to have a good monitoring system to make sure that they are safe. Not only by providing them hospitalization but also access to new oral medications."
Kyle Tattle, president of the Japanese arm of U.S. drugmaker Merck & Co INC., told reporters the company was working to provide its COVID-19 oral pill, molnupiravir, as soon as possible.
The government would also weigh scientific data in considering shorter quarantines for people who have had close contact with COVID-19 patients, Kishida told a parliamentary debate.
(Reporting by Rocky Swift, Satoshi Sugiyama and Ritsuko ShimizuEditing by Robert Birsel, Alexandra Hudson)