TOKYO: Japan's health minister on Sunday (Feb 16) urged the public to avoid crowds and "non-essential gatherings", including notoriously packed commuter trains, to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in the country.
Katsunobu Kato warned the nation was "entering a new phase" in the outbreak of the coronavirus, which has infected nearly 60 people in Japan so far.
"We want to ask the public to avoid non-urgent, non-essential gatherings. We want elderly and those with pre-existing conditions to avoid crowded places," Kato said after a meeting of a panel of experts.
"I think it's important that we exercise Japan's collective strength. We wish to ask the Japanese people for their cooperation and it will take everyone being united to tackle this infectious disease," he told a press conference.
Kato said cases with no clear transmission chains and involving people who have not travelled to China, where the outbreak began, meant Japan was entering a new stage.
The government will draft fresh guidelines for doctors about when to suspect possible coronavirus infections and for ordinary citizens to know when to seek medical care.
Japan has been pushing Tokyo residents to try telecommuting or avoid rush hour commutes to ease traffic congestion during the summer Tokyo Olympic Games.
Kato said the government will reiterate its calls on people to try those measures to ease the spread of the virus.
The comments come after a spate of new infections were confirmed over the weekend, raising the total number of cases inside Japan to 59.
Those numbers exclude hundreds of cases aboard a cruise ship, as well as a quarantine officer who tested people on the boat.
Most infected individuals seem to experience mild conditions similar to the common cold and may not realise that they have the disease, risking possibly spreading it to others, said Takaji Wakita, chief of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who headed the expert panel.
"It is expected that domestic infections will continue," Wakita said, adding that Japan was at an early stage of the spread.