Japan tightened its border controls Monday to limit the spread of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but government officials and legal experts point out the containment strategy may not be successful due to legal limitations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday that from Monday the nation would ask all those arriving from South Korea and China to self-quarantine for two weeks at designated facilities.
The measure took effect on 12:00 a.m. Monday and is set to continue through March 31.
But in a telephone interview Monday, a health ministry official representing a division tasked with overseeing quarantine protocols admitted that in terms of enforcing quarantine, Japan’s hands are tied.
“Under the current law, the health ministry can only request” voluntary quarantine, the official said.
Under the latest policy, the government is calling for tourists from China, where the virus emerged, and South Korea, which has been hard hit by the outbreak, to put off travel to Japan. Tokyo is also canceling visas for travelers from the two countries.
During a Diet session Monday, Abe also said the government was planning to extend the measure to include travelers from Italy where the number of people infected had exceeded 7,000.
But what will happen to Japanese nationals and residents with fixed addresses in Japan, or those with permission to stay?
Officials will ask all travelers, including those without any COVID-19 symptoms, to stay in designated areas — at home or at a hotel — for two weeks.
“When the government arranged chartered flights for Japanese nationals and residents to bring them back from Wuhan (where the virus originated), the government also arranged facilities where they could stay,” said the ministry official, highlighting differences between the quarantine protocols.
The official said that those who don’t have a home address will be asked to secure accommodation in advance before their trip while those who haven’t made such arrangements will need to do so upon arrival at the airport.
The government will also ask travelers from the countries not to use public transport.
But self-imposed quarantine has limitations.
According to some recent media reports, a man in his 50s from Aichi Prefecture, who was diagnosed with the virus last week and told to self-isolate at his home in Gamagori, disobeyed doctors’ instructions and deliberately visited a number of public places on his way home. The man reportedly visited several establishments “to spread the virus.”
The man was described as asymptomatic but was instructed to wait until medical staff had found a medical facility he could visit the following day.
What if any of the travelers from South Korea or China broke quarantine?
“There are no punitive measures,” the ministry official said. He said that travelers are asked on arrival to share the address where they will stay in Japan, their contact information and the means of transportation they plan to use. He added that officials may try to contact travelers to check their whereabouts, but said “that’s just a possibility.”
Tetsu Isobe, a law professor at Keio University, also believes that imposing self-quarantine as a containment strategy may be difficult in practice due to legal restrictions.
If a traveler is not a Japanese national and is infected with the virus, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act allows for entry restrictions to be imposed in case the person is considered a threat to the safety of Japanese nationals, Isobe said.
Japan has also introduced an ordinance that came into effect in February and enables authorities to apply restrictions on all travelers from virus-hit Wuhan and other regions believed to be near the origin of the virus outbreak.
“But this law cannot be applied to travelers from other regions that are not designated as the origin,” especially if they are asymptomatic, Isobe said.
Travelers entering Japan are also subject to Japan’s quarantine law.
The law stipulates that anyone who has contracted the virus, regardless of whether they has developed symptoms or not, can be placed under a mandatory quarantine or hospitalized.
Those who break quarantine can be transported to the hospital under duress, Isobe added.
“The Quarantine Law applies to people who are confirmed to have the virus, but travelers who haven’t contracted are exempt,” he said. So without a diagnosis officials “can only ask” travelers to self-quarantine.
The government is now working to amend Japan’s special measures law to tackle new types of influenza and other infectious diseases. The revised law will allow the prime minister to issue a “state of emergency” if deemed necessary.
Isobe said the law, which in principle will grant authority to prefectural governments, will give them more power. If the amendments are passed, they will likely enable prefectural governments to restrict the movements and activities of citizens.
“But still, it will only allow the authorities to recommend such measures,” Isobe said, adding that such limitations are partly related to Article 22 of the Constitution — which guarantees freedom to choose and change one’s residence.
“Without introducing stricter laws, (prohibiting movement of people nationwide) would be impossible,” he said. “But such (legal) solutions should be reduced to a minimum,” with respect to human rights.
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