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The nation's ¥19.1 trillion third supplementary budget is expected to clear the Upper House on Thursday evening amid relentless criticism of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga over his administration’s novel coronavirus response.

During four days of budget committee debates inside both chambers of the Diet, Suga came under heavy fire from opposition lawmakers for not acting fast enough to curb the spread of the virus, and for the administration's plans to enact amendments to disease control legislation that would have laid criminal punishments on people and businesses who flout COVID-19 guidelines. Ultimately, the opposition's arguments found more support, and the ruling coalition eventually agreed Thursday to drop the provisions on criminal punishment, while keeping in place stipulations for fines.

Suga's exhaustion during a trying week was apparent: On Tuesday, his voice became hoarse and his eyes showed signs of fatigue. At times, he raised his voice to protest that his past decisions were made in consultation with experts, even though he admitted he was ultimately responsible for the consequences. At other times, he capitulated while being berated and apologized that an overburdened health care system meant that some COVID-19 patients could not be hospitalized.

Still, he held his ground to secure what he wanted in the budget — chiefly funding for his pet project, the controversial Go To subsidy programs — and swatted away criticism calling for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics to be scrapped or postponed.

As the pandemic is far from over and hospital resources continue to be overwhelmed, the path ahead for the prime minister remains treacherous, with Suga's political fate resting on tackling the coronavirus and the Summer Olympics as the Diet now moves on to a debate over the fiscal 2021 budget.

The third supplementary budget allocates ¥4.3 trillion out of the ¥19 trillion for coronavirus measures to boost testing capacity, ensure smooth vaccinations and support stretched health care facilities.

Opposition lawmakers were indignant that the government earmarked a comparatively small amount to deal with the public health crisis, and demanded the budget be reorganized to allocate more funding for bringing the crisis under control.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting about coronavirus control measures in Tokyo on Jan. 22.  | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a meeting about coronavirus control measures in Tokyo on Jan. 22. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

They were also irked that the budget set aside ¥1.03 trillion for Go To Travel and ¥51.5 billion for Go To Eat, both signature policies for Suga. Such funding should not be included in the supplementary budget at a time when the nation is in crisis, the opposition argued.

“This budget represents the administration’s disregard for a sense of crisis,” blasted Kenji Eda, a Lower House lawmaker of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, pointing out that the budget had been compiled before a state of emergency was declared in 11 prefectures.

Suga snapped at Eda for framing the budget as offering inadequate support for medical workers and stressed that it appropriated more than ¥4 trillion for coronavirus measures, including ¥1.3 trillion for prefectures to support securing hospital beds and hotels to accommodate patients with mild symptoms, insisting that the government will ensure health care facilities that treat COVID-19 patients will not sustain losses.

Suga also asserted that the budget is “important to protect the lives and the livelihoods of people” and includes capital to help businesses stay afloat, such as ¥543 billion for employment subsidies. When Junya Ogawa, a CDP Lower House lawmaker, called the inclusion of Go To in the supplementary budget “inappropriate,” Suga shot back.

“Go To Travel contributes to the regional economy … and although the enterprise is suspended to prevent the virus from spreading further, the funding is included as preparation for when it is resumed at an appropriate time,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers wasted no time hounding the prime minister for not halting the Go To programs and declaring the state of emergency earlier.

The prime minister was mostly cornered and forced to go on the defensive, saying that he has been making decisions after consultation with health experts and was cautious about making an emergency declaration that would restrict activities. He even cited praise from experts over his decision on Dec. 14 to discontinue the Go To Travel program nationwide.

Hiroshi Moriyama (left), Diet affairs chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, speaks to Jun Azumi (right), his counterpart with the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, at the Diet on Thursday. | KYODO
Hiroshi Moriyama (left), Diet affairs chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, speaks to Jun Azumi (right), his counterpart with the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, at the Diet on Thursday. | KYODO

However, he acknowledged responsibility and apologized for strain on the health care system that he had promised to avoid, with some COVID-19 patients waitlisted for hospitalization and left to recover at home without medical supervision.

”I feel extremely sorry for the current system, where one is unable to receive a necessary test at the necessary time, for example,” he said Tuesday. “I feel that people are worried about the system being unable to offer necessary medical care.”

“As a person who is responsible for this nation, I’ve been introducing measures as I consult with everyone including experts, but the people have not understood them … I’ll continue to do what’s necessary to prevent further transmission expeditiously.”

Suga was visibly irritated when Renho, an Upper House member with the CDP, claimed that he had failed to share a sense of urgency with the public. Suga described her accusation as “a little rude” and insisted he has been doing everything he can to turn the tide in the virus fight.

Aside from the supplementary budget, proposed changes to the special law on coronavirus measures and the infectious disease prevention law were also the subjects of heated discussion during the budget committee meetings.

The ruling coalition wanted to mandate compensation for businesses that comply with requests to close or shorten business hours, and nonpenal fines of up to ¥500,000 for those who don’t, during the state of emergency. It additionally sought to impose a fine of up to ¥1 million or a prison term of up to a year for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized, and punish those who refuse to cooperate with contact-tracing efforts by public health centers with a fine of up to ¥500,000.

Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the CDP questions Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee on Tuesday. | KYODO
Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the CDP questions Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during a meeting of the Lower House Budget Committee on Tuesday. | KYODO

A poll this month by the Yomiuri daily showed the public was split about the stipulation of punishment related to restricting business hours in the special measure law, with 38% in favor and 52% against. Conversely, the poll found that 68% supported imposing punishments for those who refused to be hospitalized or cooperate with contact tracing, as opposed to 27% opposing it.

Throughout the debates, Suga emphasized the penalties are necessary to guarantee the effectiveness of disease control and that the bills do not undermine human rights. The National Governors' Association, he added, is urging the central government to adopt penalties, detailing occasions where some COVID-19 patients refused to be hospitalized and slipped out of hospitals without permission.

Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Toru Miyamoto took issue with the penalty on refusing to cooperate with contact tracing investigations by public health centers, saying it was counterproductive and discourages people from making full disclosures of their whereabouts. Health minister Norihisa Tamura responded that some governors had told him about cases in which people in close contact with COVID-19 patients could not be identified due to a lack of cooperation in contact tracing.

“I’m aware of a variety of opinions about the matter,” Tamura said.

Representatives from the Liberal Democratic Party and the CDP reached an agreement late Thursday morning to omit the stipulations on criminal punishment — prison terms and fines — and only introduce correctional fines that do not result in criminal records through the revised infectious disease control law. The opposition had protested that the criminal penalties were too harsh and demanded the stipulations on the punishment be omitted. The two sides also agreed to lower the nonpenal fines for businesses in the special measure law.

Another topic contested during the discussion was the upcoming Tokyo Games. While public excitement for hosting the games as scheduled is waning, the prime minister was determined to forge ahead despite vocal opposition from opposition lawmakers.

It is believed that the success of the Olympics is integral for the prime minister to cling to power ahead of September's LDP leadership contest.

Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto told the Lower House that the government would expect to ask 10,000 doctors and nurses to work as medical staff supporting athletes in five-day shifts during the Olympics. The central government is coordinating with the Tokyo Organising Committee and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government so as not to deprive the metropolitan areas of their medical resources.

Unconvinced, CDP lawmaker Kiyomi Tsujimoto asked skeptically whether it is possible to hold the athletic event as planned.

The prime minister had a one-sentence answer.

“We’ll make preparations for a safe and secure Olympic Games with infallible coronavirus measures.”

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