The Cabinet on Tuesday approved a bill that would enable Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency, if needed, as Japan scrambles to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
Abe, who faced criticism for being too relaxed in his initial response to the outbreak, has sought the power to prepare for a “worst case scenario.”
His administration also adopted on Tuesday a fresh emergency package valued at around ¥1 trillion ($9.6 billion) for businesses battered by the spread of the virus. The measure features ¥500 billion in zero-interest loans for small and midsize companies short of cash due to sharp falls in sales.
In addition, the government will provide ¥4,100 a day in subsidies for freelance workers who are forced to give up their assignments so they can take care of their children during the school closure period, which is expected to run through early April, according to officials.
Moreover, the prime minister has extended a government request to event organizers nationwide to refrain from holding such gatherings by about 10 days.
Regarding the bill on emergency powers, which is a revision to a 2013 law for dealing with new types of influenza and other infectious diseases, opposition parties maintain that the existing law is sufficient for handling the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The bill is expected to clear the Lower House on Thursday and the Upper House on Friday. Both chambers are controlled by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.
The legal change would allow the prime minister to declare a state of emergency lasting up to two years if coronavirus infections spread rapidly across the country and fears are raised of a grave impact on people’s lives and the economy.
Once an emergency is declared, prefectural governors can instruct residents to stay indoors and ask for schools to close and events to be canceled.
Local governments can also demand that essential supplies such as medicine and food be sold to them. They can temporarily take over private land and facilities to provide medical care.
“Given that individual rights would be suppressed (after an emergency declaration), I would thoroughly examine its potential impacts when making a decision,” Abe told a budget committee session on Monday.
Abe has already requested that schools across the nation close and big sports and cultural events be canceled or postponed. But under the current law, the government does not have the legal power to enforce school closures or event cancellations.
In a rare overture last week, Abe met with five opposition party leaders to seek their support for the legal change. The opposition has been critical of the government’s quarantine and border control measures to fight the pneumonia-causing coronavirus.
The main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People say the prime minister should seek prior parliamentary approval before any declaration of a state of emergency. The number of confirmed cases in Japan has surpassed 1,100, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama.
On Monday, a government panel of experts warned that the battle to contain the new coronavirus could take months or even last beyond the end of the year, urging the public to stay vigilant.
“The virus may survive warmer weather, unlike influenza,” Kazuhiro Tateda, a member of the panel and president of the Japanese Association of Infectious Diseases, told a news conference following their meeting.
The panel denied that infections in Japan are increasing explosively, but it also said it is still too early to relax measures.
As many large events have been canceled to prevent further infections, the panel said such restraint must be kept up for an additional 10 days.
On Feb. 24, the panel said that the following one to two weeks will be crucial in terms of whether the virus will spread rapidly or be brought under control. The panel said that the country has been able to prevent the pace of growth in infections from accelerating, noting that small clusters of patients have been detected before there was an expansion in some cases.
Takaji Wakita, chief of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, who heads the panel, told the news conference that the body later this month will be able to better determine the effectiveness of measures such as the cancellations and postponements of large events. He called on citizens to continue current measures at least until then.
Even if the current COVID-19 outbreak is brought under control, the country would continue to face a situation in which a new outbreak could occur at any time, the panel warned, stressing the importance of establishing a system to detect clusters of infections quickly.