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TOKYO: Japan is set to announce on Wednesday the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions imposed on Tokyo and 17 other prefectures as a wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant continues to ebb.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. (1000 GMT), when he is expected to announce the lifting of curbs on March 21, along with a further easing of border measures, local media reported.

Tokyo logged 7,836 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, down 12% from a week earlier. An Omicron wave led to record infection rates in the capital and throughout Japan in February, the nation’s deadliest wave of the pandemic so far.

After a slow start, the government’s COVID-19 vaccine booster programme has accelerated, with about 71% of Japan’s vulnerable elderly population having received a third dose.

The so-called quasi-state of emergency curbs currently applied in 18 of Japan’s 47 prefectures centre on limiting hours for eateries and other businesses.

Officials in the western prefecture of Osaka had considered requesting an extension of the restrictions due to high hospitalisations, but ultimately decided to let them expire, the Kyodo news service reported.

The measures have had an impact on the economy, particularly the service sector.

“A certain amount of services demand will be unleashed if the curbs are lifted as households have quite a lot of savings now and it coincides with the spring holidays,” said Daiju Aoki, chief Japan economist at UBS SuMi TRUST Wealth Management.

Health experts have said the current Omicron wave is not over, and new variants could emerge at any time. But the restrictions, used repeatedly during the two-year pandemic, have lost their effectiveness on public behaviour, said Tohoku University professor Hitoshi Oshitani.

“We need to have a different strategy to suppress the transmission at this stage,” said Oshitani, a lead advisor on the government’s pandemic response. “It’s still premature to discuss a kind of exit strategy from this virus.”

Kishida is also likely to announce a raising of the limit on daily arrivals in Japan to 10,000 from April, from the current 7,000, media have said, the latest step in relaxing tough border regulations that have drawn criticism from businesses and educators.

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