By Stanley White and Leika Kihara
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Saturday promised an unprecedented package of steps to cushion the world's third-biggest economy from the coronavirus pandemic, saying the country was close to a national emergency as infections surged.
Abe said the "huge, powerful" measures will include fiscal stimulus, monetary steps and tax breaks for companies, though the details have not been finalised.
"We are in a critical stage. We need to be ready for a long-term battle," Abe said in a nationally televised news conference, adding: "I want to be straightforward about that."
Infections in Japan have climbed to more than 1,500, with 52 deaths, excluding those from a cruise ship quarantined last month, according to public broadcaster NHK.
Officials confirmed a further 63 cases in Tokyo and on Saturday announced 57 new coronavirus cases at a center for the disabled in Chiba prefecture near the capital, NHK said.
Hit early by the coronavirus in its initial spread from China, Japan had seen a more gradual rise than the recent surge in much of Europe and the United States that has led to lockdowns of billions of people around the world.
Abe held back from declaring a state of emergency though he announced plans to approve the drug Avigan that has proved helpful in treatment.
"The pandemic is inflicting extremely big damage to Japan's economy," he said. "We'll deploy a huge, powerful package that will include a full range of fiscal, monetary and tax measures."
The size of the package will exceed that compiled in response to the global financial crisis of 2008, which was worth a total 57 trillion yen ($528 billion), Abe said.
The government will come up with a supplementary budget within ten days and try to get it through parliament at the earliest date possible, he said.
Part of the measures will include arrangements so that "small and midsized companies can borrow at zero interest from private financial institutions," he said.
"We will also create a new scheme to offer cash payouts," he added, saying this would be directed at households and companies that need it the most.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike earlier issued a plea following a surge in coronavirus infections this week that she said put Tokyo on the brink of an emergency.
She asked the tens of millions of people in the city and surrounding regions to avoid non-essential, non-urgent outings until April 12, particularly this weekend.
Abe this week called the situation "a national crisis". People in the Osaka area in western Japan have also been asked to stay at home.
While the current level of infection appears low for a city of nearly 14 million, with many millions more living in surrounding suburbs, experts warn there is a high risk that the number of cases could spiral as authorities have been unable to track all the contacts of more than half of the latest cases.
Tokyo reported one more casualty on Saturday, marking a total 7 deaths in the region.
At the news conference Abe rejected assertions that Japan was hiding the true number of cases.
The government has deployed the military to greater Tokyo's Narita and Haneda airports to assist in virus screenings and the transport of people placed in quarantine, NHK said.
Calls for people to stay at home voluntarily compare with more rigorous lockdowns in Italy, Britain, France, Spain, and the United States - the new global epicenter of the virus.
Globally, infections have topped half a million with more than 20,000 deaths, with the contagion affecting more than 100 countries.
Abe is expected to order economic steps including $135 billion or more in spending, government officials and lawmakers say, joining policymakers globally trying to blunt a downturn.
In a quiet neighborhood close to the prime minister's private residence in central Tokyo, the scene was typical of a Saturday morning. Some people were jogging and walking their dogs. A few stopped to pray at a local shrine.
"I'm a little worried, but I have an appointment today, which is why I'm outside," said a 41-year old man walking down the street, who declined to be named.
"It's not something that I can't cancel, but I do have to meet someone. I will be riding the train later."
Some department stores, movie theaters, museums and parks closed, but many supermarkets and convenience stores were open as usual.
In Setagaya, a popular residential area in western Tokyo, many restaurants and shops were shut, although those that were open were doing brisk business, including an Italian restaurant that was filled with some young families and older couples.
Nearby, laborers worked on a construction site as if it were a normal day.
($1 = 107.8900 yen)
(Reporting by Stanley White and Leika Kihara; Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Kiyoshi Takenaka and Linda Sieg; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick, William Mallard and Ros Russell)