Health minister Katsunobu Kato was put on the defensive Wednesday as he drew heavy flak from opposition lawmakers over the government’s response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak.
In a Lower House Budget Committee session, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano vowed that the opposition will cooperate with the government’s containment efforts but railed against Kato over the quarantine measures aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The opposition party leader questioned the government’s decision to free passengers last week after a 14-day quarantine period and allow them to return to their homes using public transportation. Two Japanese people who had tested negative and disembarked were later confirmed to be infected in Tochigi and Tokushima prefectures.
Kato defended the decision to let them get off the ship without additional quarantine, noting that about half of the passengers were elderly who had endured harsh conditions “both physically and mentally” on the ship.
He added that health authorities have implemented enhanced health checks, following up with the passengers on a daily basis and reminding them to refrain from going outside.
“We considered how best to deal with 3,700 people (the total number of crew members and passengers) and those who might have been infected. Unfortunately, there were no places that could accommodate such a large number of people inside the country,” Kato said. “The conditions were harsh … but everyone has done everything they can up to this point.”
The opposition was initially reluctant to launch a full-scale attack against the administration over the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. But the public has grown increasingly wary of the rising number of infected people and is showing heightened skepticism regarding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership, according to several recent polls.
That has led to a shift in the opposition camp’s strategy, allowing it to use the administration’s crisis-management woes as a political battering ram.
Partly to shake off criticism, the prime minister has expanded immigration restrictions for fear of coronavirus infections coming from areas other than China, such as banning entry to foreign nationals who have been to the South Korean city of Daegu and Cheongdo County in North Gyeongsang province within the last 14 days.
Those two areas in South Korea have seen staggering increases in the number of COVID-19 patients, and the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday advised would-be travelers to call off nonurgent and nonessential trips to them. Japan placed a similar ban on foreign nationals from Hubei and Zhejiang provinces in China.
Abe also called for mass sports and cultural events to be canceled, postponed or scaled down for the next two weeks, reversing the government’s stated policies just a day earlier, which fell short of actively pressing for the outright cancellation or postponement of such events.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has requested that national museums close down until March 15.
The administration is eager to pass the fiscal 2020 budget in the Lower House by this week. But it is expected that the opposition will seek to use delaying tactics as a bargaining chip in order to force Cabinet members to go in front of the public, giving them a chance to embarrass the government over its handling of the outbreak.
Edano particularly took issue with the limited number of coronavirus tests that have been conducted so far. Kato last week said that Japan’s virus testing capacity had been augmented to allow for the testing of about 3,800 samples a day.
But the health minister disclosed that only 6,300 such virus tests had been done between Feb. 18 and Monday. Asked about the discrepancy between last week’s remark and the reality, the health minister said some institutions are not prepared to conduct tests despite having received testing kits.
He also acknowledged that he had heard of incidents where some requests for carrying out tests had been turned down by public health centers. He said the health ministry will look into the situation.
During Wednesday’s session, Kato admitted that 45 people who had disembarked the cruise ship are now complaining of having “some symptoms.”
Opposition lawmaker Kazunori Yamanoi criticized Kato for not immediately testing health ministry officials, including vice health minister Gaku Hashimoto, who is still working on the cruise ship.
Appearing annoyed, Kato defended the health ministry’s decision to withhold testing until the operation inside the vessel was complete, saying it is ineffective to test every day.
“I know it is difficult, but those people are asked to work in such a risky environment for a certain period of time. After that is complete, we’ll conduct the tests for sure and make sure they don’t meet with people other than specified members. … Otherwise, no one will work at the scene.”
For his part, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in response to Yamanoi’s strong criticism over the shortage of masks in the country, asked for patience and said the country is working to produce more than 600 million surgical masks in March.
“It is anticipated that it’s going to take some time for masks to be available at stores, as they will be gradually distributed starting with hospitals that don’t have sufficient quantities in stock,” Suga said.
“The government has asked (the manufacturers) to further increase production. We’re aware of the current situation, but we ask the Japanese people not to buy up (masks) and make sure they will be available to as many people as possible.”