Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for all schools in the country to close from Monday until the end of their spring holidays, taking the unprecedented move in a bid to combat further spread of the coronavirus.
The closure will apply to all elementary, junior high, senior high and special needs schools nationwide, and would keep around 13 million students across the country at home for at least a month, according to statistics from the education ministry.
“We are placing the safety and health of children first,” Abe said at a meeting of a government task force in Tokyo on Thursday. He called for the steps “to reduce the risk of a large-scale infection coming from children and teachers gathering together for long periods of time.”
After being heavily criticized for a slow response to the spread of the infection in Japan, the government is moving to take more urgent steps as the number of cases in the country surge. Thursday saw 13 new infections in the northern island of Hokkaido alone, bringing Japan’s total past 200, a figure that doesn’t include the 705 infected from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The outbreak of the virus has slammed the brakes on travel and tourism and may push Japan into recession. This week, the mounting scale of the infection has raised question marks over whether the country will be able to host the 2020 Olympics, less than five months away.
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Abe’s government has already drawn scrutiny for declining to issue a blanket ban on visitors from China. The failed quarantine of the Diamond Princess, which led to hundreds of infections, prompted a hail of international criticism.
Japan’s spring holidays typically begin around late March and run until the start of the new school year in the early weeks of April. Schools in the country are overseen by various municipal and local governments, which determine their schedules. Together with the spring holidays, this means schools will likely close for at least a month. The health ministry has said the steps won’t apply to daycare facilities, Kyodo reported.
On Wednesday, Abe called for all major sporting and cultural events to be cancelled, postponed or scaled down for the next two weeks, which has led to a flurry of cancellations of concerts and professional sports games. The school closure will also cover a period of time in which graduation and entrance ceremonies are held, culturally celebrated events in the lives of students and parents alike.