İrem UZUN -TDO- Japan’s entire school system, from elementary to high schools, will be asked to close from Monday until spring break late in March to help contain the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Thursday. “This coming week or two are an extremely important period,” Abe told a coronavirus task force. “Prioritizing children’s’ health and safety above everything else, we will ask all the elementary, junior high and high schools across Japan to temporarily close from March 2 to spring break.”

Abe’s surprise announcement came as the number of confirmed COVID-19 virus patients kept surging, exceeding 200 across Japan as of Thursday evening, excluding the more than 700 infected patients related to the virus-hit Diamond Princess cruise ship. On the main northern island of Hokkaido, 13 new cases, including two children under the age of 10, were confirmed, the public broadcaster NHK reported.  Officials in Osaka had already ordered the closure of all schools in the city for a fortnight and 1,600 schools in Hokkaido were also set to close. The move came after a woman in Osaka, which has a population of 2.6million, tested positive for the virus for a second time in one of the first cases of its kind. The 40-year-old caught the virus while working on a tour bus in Osaka with visitors from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, in January.

However, Japan said on Thursday that preparations for a rare state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping planned for April were going ahead, even as it called for sports and cultural events to be scaled down to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. 'Things are on track for President Xi Jinping's visit to Japan, and we are proceeding as usual with preparations,' Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

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