Japan warned on Thursday of high risk the coronavirus would spread widely as the government prepared a task force to handle the crisis but the economy minister said the administration was not thinking of declaring a state of emergency now.
Japan had 1,314 domestic cases of coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon, separate from 712 from a cruise ship that was moored near Tokyo last month, broadcaster NHK reported. There have been 45 domestic deaths and 10 from the cruise ship.
"I told Prime Minister Abe there is a high risk of coronavirus spreading widely," Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters after meeting Shinzo Abe and Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.
Nishimura said Abe told him to "proceed swiftly with setting up the government taskforce" based on Kato's report.
But the government was not considering declaring a state of emergency at the moment, Nishimura said.
Japan battling Coronavirus
Under a law revised this month to cover the coronavirus, the prime minister can declare a state of emergency if the disease poses a "grave danger" to lives and if its rapid spread threatens serious economic damage.
Japan was teetering on the brink of recession before the virus struck and the epidemic has increased that risk.
A state of emergency would allow governors in hard-hit regions to take steps such as asking people to stay home, closing schools and other public facilities and cancelling large events.
Japanese shares tumbled on Thursday following three days of big gains after the rise in domestic coronavirus cases stoked worries of tougher domestic restrictions for social distancing.
Hitachi Ltd instructed 50,000 employees at its group companies in Tokyo to work from home and avoid unnecessary outings and a landmark department store in Tokyo's Shibuya district - popular with young people, many of whom have continued to go out to play and shop - said it would close on the weekend.
Tadashi Matsukawa, Tokyo head of fixed income investment at PineBridge Investments, said while people were panic buying in fear of a lockdown, they were unlikely to buy big-ticket items and some products might not be available anyway.
"On the whole, I suspect there will be considerable damage to the economy," Matsukawa said.
The decision to set up the task force - a necessary step to declaring an emergency - followed a sharp jump in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, making the capital the epicentre of Japan's outbreak. Tokyo had 212 cases as of Wednesday.
An increasing number of cases the origin of which cannot be traced has experts worried about a surge in the community along with more infections from people returning from abroad.
On Wednesday, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike warned of the risk of an explosive rise in infections in the capital and asked residents to avoid non-essential outings through April 12, especially over the weekend. She repeated her call on Thursday.
"The government and local authorities will cooperate based on the awareness that this is a very critical time to prevent the spread of the virus," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yosihide Suga told a news conference.
The International Olympic Committee and the government on Tuesday agreed to put back the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to 2021 over the outbreak.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has asked the neighbouring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa to ask their residents to refrain from non-urgent, non-essential travel to Tokyo, the Nikkei business daily reported.
The governor of Kanagawa, near Tokyo, later asked residents to stay at home this weekend.
Abe has already told schools to close - although many are now preparing to reopen - and asked organisers to refrain from large-scale events, but his instructions had no formal legal basis.
Even if a state of emergency is eventually declared, experts noted there are no penalties for ignoring most of the local authorities' instructions.
"The government of Japan is getting close to declaring a 'state of emergency' but even if so, no penalty for defying requests to stay home," said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute for Population Health at King's College, London.
A declaration would, however, put more pressure on people and businesses to obey.
On a sunny three-day break last weekend, crowds of people were out in Tokyo despite bans in some areas on picnics for the traditional spring "hanami" cherry-blossom viewing.
On Thursday, tabloids blared "Tokyo Lockdown Panic" and "Tokyo Destruction".
But a long line of people waited at a chocolate croissant cafe in Tokyo for lunch, while subways were packed and people lined up before drug stores opened to buy masks and sanitary products that are in short supply.