A new government subcommittee on the novel coronavirus held its first meeting Monday, with the Abe administration and public health officials attempting to renew their cooperation in fighting the pandemic by offering a clean slate after recent incidents had triggered mutual distrust.
Officials and public health experts had been at odds with each other over their tasks, and the meeting offered a fresh chance to set the record straight on their respective responsibilities while bringing in experts outside the realm of public health, in addition to considering how to keep the economy afloat.
“Up until now, we’ve received advice from the government panel of infectious disease experts, set up under the government coronavirus task force, from a medical and public health point of view,” said economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who leads the government’s coronavirus response.
“However, following a series of processes including a state of emergency, an important issue now is to make both infectious disease preventive measures and socioeconomic activities sustainable.”
Nishimura said the meeting was established to hear analysis and suggestions on the current COVID-19 infection situation, vaccinations, the system of keeping track of an outbreak and measures to take to prevent an epidemic in the future. Monday’s meeting focused on evaluating the rising number of cases in Tokyo, seeking feedback on easing restrictions and discussing the “strategic” expansion of virus testing as well as data collection.
The first meeting was convened amid a worrisome uptick in the number of COVID-19 patients in the nation’s capital. Tokyo reported 102 cases Monday, a concerning number since the figure reported on that day of the week reflects the tally recorded Sunday, when the number of tests conducted is usually low.
The subcommittee has replaced a government panel of infectious disease experts, which played an essential role in assessing the infection situation and made recommendations to the government on its response as the virus was running rampant between March and early May.
The new panel is composed of 18 members including infectious disease experts, economists, a governor and a journalist, and is led by Shigeru Omi, who was the vice chair of the previous government panel.
By including specialists from other fields, the government hopes not to lean too much toward public health experts, who oftentimes recommend actions that would lower virus transmission but at the expense of halting the movement of people, thereby harming the economy.
Nishimura abruptly announced the dissolution of the government panel on June 24, which caught Omi, who had become the public face of the panel and was having a separate news conference at the same time, off guard. Lawmakers, including even those from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, criticized the decision, which appeared to have been done in haste.
The government and the members of the panel were mutually displeased with each other over the way the two sides had set expectations of their respective roles. The panel was in charge of making proposals to the government on keeping infections under control, and the government was to make its decisions based on those proposals.
But in reality, there was a perception that the roles of the two had become blurred.
Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Disease and the panel’s chairman, raised concerns in late June that the panel had given the false impression that it was making policies, instead of the government, that interfered with economic activities. Wakita’s comment was a direct response to criticism raised within the government, and to some extent among the public, about the panel’s decision-making, including its suggestion that human-to-human contact should be slashed by 80 percent.
It was revealed that the government had asked the panel members to amend or delete some passages when it was compiling its assessment, out of fear that they could cause public panic.
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