National

Japan to step up coronavirus action as Abe takes flak for response

by Satoshi Sugiyama

Staff Writer

In the face of growing criticism over Japan’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday that foreign nationals who have been to Hubei province — where the virus’s epicenter of Wuhan is located — in the 14 days prior to their arrival in Japan will be denied entry starting Saturday.

The decision, which will also deny entry to holders of Chinese passports issued in the province, came as opposition parties and some members of the ruling bloc criticized the government’s plan to bill evacuees from Wuhan for their flights home and hotel arrangements that forced two evacuees, who were later diagnosed with the coronavirus, to share a room with people who weren’t infected.

Abe also said the government is considering subsidizing airfares for the charter flights out of the virus’s epicenter. He also said the government will move up the implementation of an ordinance naming the virus a “designated infectious disease” to Saturday.

“The government will continue to make decisions and implement necessary measures without hesitation as our highest priority is to protect Japanese citizens’ lives and health,” the prime minister said.

His surprise announcement comes after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global public health emergency.

Seventeen people had been infected with the virus in Japan as of Friday, including a female tour bus guide in her 20s in Chiba Prefecture.

The ordinance, adopted by the Cabinet on Tuesday, was initially supposed to take effect on Feb. 7. It lays the legal groundwork to deny the entry to Japan of foreign nationals infected with the virus and forcefully hospitalizing those who test positive.

The government had originally planned to charge returnees from Wuhan about ¥80,000. But even some ruling party Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights, including Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, exhorted the government to pick up the tab.

A third charter flight from Wuhan landed at Haneda Airport on Friday morning carrying 149 people. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that 10 of them are feeling ill.

Later Friday, the health ministry said that two have been diagnosed with the virus.

With the conclusion of the third charter flight, the top government spokesman said, most Japanese residing in Wuhan who wished to come back had done so. So far, 565 Japanese have returned via the three flights.

Suga added that about 140 Japanese, mostly from outside of Wuhan, are still hoping to return home, but he didn’t mention the possibility of a fourth charter flight. Still, he emphasized that the government will bring all Japanese home who wish to leave.

The prime minister also announced Friday the government’s infectious disease warning for China would be raised to level two out of a maximum of four. A level two warning advises people to “avoid travel that is not urgent or is not necessary.”

The infectious disease alert for Hubei province, where the outbreak began, had already been raised to level three, which warns against any travel to the region.

At the Diet, opposition parties have spent most of the week attacking Abe for scandals concerning controversial state-funded cherry blossom-viewing parties, the casino legalization plan and the spate of Cabinet resignations since a September reshuffle.

But with Abe revealing little new information and the opposition running out of steam on the matter, it has instead seized on the government’s virus response as an opportunity to go on the offensive.

During Friday’s session in the Lower House, Kazunori Yamanoi, an independent lawmaker, took up the issue that some Japanese who returned from Wuhan on Wednesday were forced to share hotel rooms provided by the government.

As a result, two people who showed no symptoms but later tested positive for the coronavirus were sharing rooms with other returnees.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato acknowledged fault in that matter but defended the government’s measures so far.

The government has been under fire both at home and abroad for not quarantining citizens returning from Wuhan. It has said taking such forceful actions could violate human rights and has instead asked them to monitor and report their own health and stay home or in lodgings provided by the government for two weeks.

“We aren’t able to isolate or stop passengers (forcefully), but we have to secure a space somewhere to create a situation essentially similar to isolation,” Kato said. “Besides, we can’t manage (people who have returned) if they are staying at separate locations … we do think some things were inadequate, so we are going to respond and to keep them in mind.”

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi stressed the government has done and will continue to do whatever it can to bring all Japanese citizens back who wish to return to Japan.

No other country has made three flights to bring its citizens home amid limited public transportation and airport operations in Wuhan, Motegi pointed out.

Coronavirus banner