Japan has warned it is on the brink of a rapid expansion of the coronavirus and urged companies to adopt remote working, staggered shifts and online meetings to reduce the spread of the illness.
An expert government panel said there had been 146 infections confirmed in more than 16 different prefectures, excluding cases from an infected cruise ship and Japanese evacuees from China. In numerous cases the source of the infection was not clear.
“We are at the crossroads,” Shigeru Omi, head of the Japan Community Health Care Organization, said at a press briefing, adding: “Local transmission is already going on.” Prime minister Shinzo Abe asked companies to adopt the new strategy after his cabinet on Tuesday approved a new antivirus plan.
The move came after a spate of new virus cases outside China, including outbreaks in Italy and South Korea, dashed investor hopes that the epidemic was close to being contained. Globally, the number of confirmed cases jumped to more than 80,000 on Tuesday, with 2,699 deaths.
Italy has seen seven death and 230 confirmed coronavirus cases, raising further worries about the country’s economy, which is already teetering on the edge of recession. Laura Castelli, deputy economy minister, said the EU should offer some flexibility on the country’s budget targets and economic support if necessary.
The spike in cases in South Korea, one of the worst hit countries outside of China with nine deaths and 893 confirmed infections, has prompted officials in Washington and Seoul to consider scaling back joint military exercises. US officials also raised the travel warning to South Korea to its highest level, warning Americans against all but essential travel to the country.
The move came as Donald Trump asked congress for $2.5bn to combat the spread of coronavirus in the US.
Global stock markets steadied on Tuesday, a day after enduring their worst session for two years.
Futures trading pointed to gains of about 1 per cent when Wall Street opens on Tuesday and European shares opened higher, recouping a fraction of Monday’s significant losses. Asian markets steadied, although shares in China fell on concerns over the government’s recent handling of the outbreak.
Italy’s FTSE MIB nudged 0.5 per cent higher, after losing 5 per cent of its value on Monday in its worst day since 2016.
The S&P 500 dropped 3.4 per cent on Monday, erasing all its gains for the year in its biggest slide since trade tensions rattled markets in February 2018. The FTSE All-World index lost 3 per cent.
Johanna Chua, chief Asia Pacific economist at Citi, said the “situation remains fluid and headline sensitive with market participants monitoring the spread of infections in several countries/regions including Italy and the Middle East”.
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The expert panel in Japan recommended changing its strategy of keeping the infection out altogether to containing it and slowing its spread. It no longer made sense to test everybody who might have been exposed to the virus, they said, as doing so would overwhelm the healthcare system.
Instead, Japan was asking anybody who felt ill to isolate themselves and said they should only seek medical help if they suffered severe symptoms.
“The biggest objective of our response from this point should be to control the speed of the infection’s spread and minimise the number of deaths and people with severe symptoms,” the panel said.
It also said that the next one to two weeks would be decisive in preventing the spread of the virus.
Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome