Japan speeds up new virus measures as more evacuees arrive

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Tokyo (AFP)

Japan will fast-track new rules to limit the spread of a coronavirus strain that has killed more than 200 people, the prime minister said Friday, as more evacuees arrived from China.

Japan has already decided to label the new virus a "designated infectious disease", allowing the forcible hospitalisation of those infected and giving immigration authorities the power to prevent people with the virus from entering the country.

The measures were due to come into effect from February 7, but will now be moved up to February 1, Shinzo Abe told parliament.

"With this measure, we will refuse infected individuals entry to Japan," Abe said.

"We will swiftly study ways to strengthen immigration control for cases where infection is suspected but not confirmed," he added.

The announcement comes with concern growing in Japan about the spread of the virus in the country, where 14 cases have been identified so far.

Among the cases are two people who contracted the virus without travelling to China -- a tour guide and bus driver who were in contact with visitors from Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak.

The 14 also include three people who returned on an evacuation flight from Wuhan on Wednesday, two of whom displayed no symptoms when they tested positive.

- Third evacuation flight arriving -

The cases of apparent person-to-person transmission, as well as infection without symptoms, have sparked increased criticism of the government's handling of the crisis, particularly its minimal quarantine measures for evacuees from Wuhan.

Unlike other countries, which are opting to isolate returning citizens for between 72 hours and two weeks, Japan has asked evacuees to "self-quarantine".

Japanese officials say there is no legal basis for them to forcibly isolate people who have not tested positive for the virus -- and that will not change with the implementation of the new rules from Saturday.

There was also outrage after it emerged that two people on the first evacuation flight from Wuhan initially refused to be tested for the virus, and were allowed to return home after being advised to avoid public transport and monitor their health.

The government has said it cannot force people to take the test, and on Thursday night health ministry officials said the two individuals had now changed their minds and would take the test.

Of the 206 people who arrived on a first flight on Wednesday, 12 have been hospitalised, with all but two of the other passengers staying at a government-designated hotel in Chiba outside Tokyo.

A second evacuation flight carrying 210 people arrived on Thursday, with 26 passengers hospitalised after checks on board and at a health facility after landing.

The remaining passengers are staying at government-designated accommodation, and all the passengers on the second flight were tested for the new virus, officials said.

A third plane carrying 149 people arrived on Friday around 10:30 am (0130 GMT), the foreign ministry said.