While an abrupt decision by the government last week to scrap its advisory coronavirus panel has drawn criticism across the political spectrum, the hastiness of the decision may have offered an insight into how keen the administration is to recover control of the narrative.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister responsible for virus response, said on June 24 a new entity would be created to replace the panel — which has made key proposals in the nation’s battle to contain the spread of the virus, including avoiding the “three Cs” of confined and crowded places and close contact with others.
The sudden move came after the panel requested clarification of its role and status, after being criticized by some in government for making recommendations about the timeline for ending curbs on society and business.
Members of the panel said the decision to cast them aside came as a complete surprise.
In fact, while Nishimura was making the announcement in front of the media, the panel was holding a separate news conference to call for its role to be redefined, with Chairman Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, saying the panel seemed to have given the impression that it rather than the government was determining policy.
The decision to kill the panel quickly has drawn criticism from ruling and opposition parties alike.
“It is offensive (to my party) to scrap it without an explanation,” said Michiyo Takagi of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Tagaki is secretary general of Komeito’s task force to address the pandemic.
Tomoko Tamura, the Japanese Communist Party’s policy committee chief, also said the government had failed to explain how the conclusion was reached.
A government source shifted the blame to Nishimura, saying he “got ahead of himself” in making the announcement.
But the developments revealed the government’s inability to maintain clear communication channels even within the ruling party, and have raised questions about its capability to respond to any potential second wave of infections.
An LDP lawmaker involved in efforts to contain the virus said the expert panel had “gradually become a presence that makes (the government) uncomfortable,” adding that the once close relationship soured as the extent of the economic impact of the virus became clearer, despite a waning in the spread of infections.
The panel has made a slew of key proposals to both the government and the public, to some extent demonstrating how slow the government has been in comparison.
Some panel members even considered making their proposals public in case the government did not approve or implement them.
The panel was wary of rolling back requests that the public stay home and that businesses suspend operations, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office was seeking to strike a balance between restarting economic activity and maintaining virus-constraining measures.
In May, when the state of emergency withdrawal became a hot topic, a government member was critical of the panel’s cautious attitude, saying, “It is the job of politicians to make decisions for the whole, including for the economy.”
Atsuo Kishimoto, an Osaka University professor specializing in risk management, said the government and the panel failed to clearly define their roles, which left the panel to take the brunt of the criticism.
“The expert panel is tasked with assessing risks and presenting different options and each of their effects, while the government bears the role of making a selection and explaining it together with the reason for the choice, but the division (of roles) was unclear,” he said.
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