Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed Monday to expedite the enactment of legislation needed to declare a state of emergency, in order to “minimize the impact on Japanese citizens’ livelihood” from the rapid spread of COVID-19.
“It is critical to always anticipate the worst-case scenario, and be prepared to take measures if the coronavirus spreads exponentially in certain areas in the future,” Abe told lawmakers during a meeting of the Upper House Budget Committee.
The prime minister said the government hopes the new legislative measures will be equivalent to those taken under a law implemented in 2013 aimed at tackling a novel influenza virus that became a pandemic in 2009.
Municipal governments are also able to build temporary medical facilities to treat a surge of patients, dispense medicine and vaccines, and ask businesses to distribute necessary materials.
The health ministry also unveiled a subsidy plan for companies that would allow parents who work full or part time to take time off to care for children up to elementary school age, as well as those enrolled in special education schools. According to the plan, companies regardless of size that pay qualified workers up to ¥8,330 per day are eligible for the new subsidy, with time off being considered separately from paid leave. The program is applicable for the period starting Feb. 27 to March 31.
At least 18 new cases of the disease were confirmed Monday, including five each in Hokkaido and Kanagawa, four in Niigata, two in Osaka and one each in Ehime and Kochi. In the first case for Ehime Prefecture, a bank clerk in her 40s who tested positive for the virus had attended a concert at a club in the city of Osaka with a friend in her 30s who was also infected.
The number of infections confirmed in Japan, including the crew and passengers of cruise ship Diamond Princess, were at 979 as of Monday night.
The city of Shizuoka on Sunday revealed that a Diamond Princess cruise passenger in his 60s who tested positive had used a gym twice, heightening fears the virus could have been transmitted to others. The same day, Abe called on the public to refrain from using crowded, badly ventilated facilities such as gymnasiums.
The prime minister has pledged to roll out a second package of emergency measures, tapping into this fiscal year’s ¥270 billion contingency funds, by March 10. The government has already adopted a ¥15.3 billion spending plan to avoid having the economy slip into a potential downturn and to curb the speed of COVID-19’s spread.
The fiscal 2020 budget cleared the Lower House on Friday, setting the stage for a debate in the Upper House starting Monday.
The opposition is using the budget committee debate as an opportunity to criticize the administration and demand explanations about its response to national and international issues as well as political controversies.
Opposition lawmakers dedicated almost all of their time in the debate Monday to addressing the Abe administration’s response so far to COVID-19, which is caused by the new coronavirus. Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama reprimanded Abe’s Cabinet for flip-flopping on its measures.
Last Tuesday, the health ministry unveiled a basic set of policies on handling the pneumonia-causing virus, but they did not include a nationwide standard for canceling events. The following day, the government then called for mass sports and cultural events to be scrapped, postponed or scaled down for the next two weeks.
Fukuyama was particularly indignant at Abe’s abrupt request Thursday to shut all schools nationwide from Monday until the end of spring vacation, which typically ends early April.
The prime minister’s snap decision, the opposition lawmaker pointed out, had led to confusion. Education minister Koichi Haguida acknowledged he had been unaware of Abe’s decision until the day it was announced.
Abe again sought to justify his decision, citing a warning by infectious disease experts on a government panel monitoring the virus that the next one to two weeks would be key in preventing a nightmare scenario of mass community infection. Adding that infection routes were unknown in some reported cases, Abe said pre-emptive actions were necessary.”Certainly, I think the issue that there wasn’t sufficient preparation time is correct,” Abe admitted. “However, I made a decision within a one- to two-week critical period and couldn’t afford to take time. I apologize for the burden but we are dealing (with the consequences) by cooperating with municipalities, boards of education and school officials.”
Abe did acknowledge, though, that he had not consulted with experts about the decision to shut down schools at a national level. Some with knowledge in the field question the effectiveness of such drastic measures compared to having schools close at a local level in areas where the number of confirmed cases is notably high.
Health minister Katsunobu Kato defended the government’s request to extend opening hours at after-school child care programs to accommodate children from single-parent and two-income households. Admitting that the risk of infection remains if those programs run at full capacity, Kato suggested they could use empty classrooms to lower student density.
Kato also made a projection that about 4,600 virus tests would be possible each day by March 10 through an expansion of testing capabilities at private institutions, health care facilities and universities. The government is preparing to cover the costs associated with such testing under public health insurance from this week, making it possible to request screening directly from private institutions without visiting public health centers. From Feb. 18 through 28, Kato said the health ministry was aware of 10,918 tests having been carried out.
“We are hoping to secure sufficient testing capabilities by enabling all patients to take the test if one’s family physician deems it necessary,” Abe said.
Asked to clarify whether everyone who wished to be tested would be eligible, Abe underscored that doctor’s discretion was first needed, prompting heckling from the opposition.
Highlighting questions over Abe’s crisis management ability, CDP Upper House member Renho pointed out that three Cabinet ministers had prioritized their individual political activities and had not attended a government COVID-19 task-force meeting on Feb. 16.
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