The Lower House began debating bills to stifle the novel coronavirus Friday, following a deal cut by the ruling coalition and the largest opposition party to eliminate provisions on criminal punishments and lower the values of nonpenal fines.
The Liberal Democratic Party and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) reached an agreement Thursday evening before the bills were introduced to the Diet floor — a highly unusual process since they had been approved already by the Cabinet.
The series of developments reflect Suga’s desperation to blunt the speed of virus transmission and stamp out criticism from opposition parties over his handling of the pandemic, by bringing them to the ruling parties’ side and accepting their demands.
“These proposals include necessary revisions to raise the effectiveness of infectious disease control measures, by establishing stipulations on compensation and penalties while rights of individuals and businesses people are taken into account,” Suga said Friday afternoon, asking for swift Diet deliberations and approval.
“We need to suppress the infection to make our measures more effective, based on the knowledge and experience we’ve gained through the past year.”
The two sides had reached an agreement on reducing a nonpenal fine for businesses that refuse to obey orders by a prefectural government to shorten business hours or temporarily close, while under a state of emergency, from a maximum of ¥500,000 to ¥300,000 or below. The revised novel coronavirus special measure law promises to offer compensation for firms that do comply with closure requests.
They also agreed on ditching a prison term of up to a year in the amended infectious disease prevention law, for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized despite orders from authorities, and reduced an associated fine of up to ¥1 million with criminal penalties to a nonpenal fine of up to ¥500,000.
There was also an agreement to omit provisions on a prison term for those who refuse to cooperate with contact-tracing efforts by public health centers, and to lower an associated fine of up to ¥500,000 with criminal penalties to a nonpenal fine of up to ¥300,000.
Opposition lawmakers had refused to budge on the criminal penalties that had been included in the bills when they were first unveiled, insisting that the consequences were excessive and counterproductive.
An additional factor compelling the ruling parties to seek compromise with the opposition was the emergence of two reports in weekly tabloid magazines this week that high-ranking ruling party lawmakers had visited hostess bars in the evening, despite businesses having been asked to close by 8 p.m. under the state of emergency. Opposition lawmakers slammed their behavior as indicative of double standards.
That left the ruling LDP and Komeito, who want to pass the revised bills and avoid being entangled in a political row, with little choice but to acquiesce to opposition demands, leading to a series of meetings to find common ground that wrapped up Thursday night.
The bills’ proponents hope to obtain Diet approval by next week before the current state of emergency is set to expire. The CDP, along with the LDP, Komeito and Nippon Ishin no Kai, is now backing the legal revisions while the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) remains opposed.
The government’s justification for introducing criminal punishments had been under intense scrutiny from opposition lawmakers.
On Friday, Akira Nagatsuma, a CDP Lower House lawmaker, queried the prime minister about the rationale for initially considering criminal punishments since the current infectious disease prevention law already authorizes COVID-19 patients to be hospitalized even if they refuse.
”There’s no need for criminal punishment,” Nagatsuma said, who also asked if there had been any cases in which patients declined to be admitted to hospitals.
Suga did not directly address Nagatsuma’s inquiry, saying only that an investigation was underway at the health ministry, but he did reveal awareness of two municipalities that had invoked involuntary hospitalization. In most cases, he added, municipality officials had been able to persuade patients to be hospitalized.
Tetsuya Shiokawa, a JCP Lower House lawmaker, asserted that neither criminal nor nonpenal punishments were appropriate for infectious disease control, and accused the government of not having sufficient facts to warrant the punishments.
In response, the prime minister cited a proposal from the National Governor’s Association as justification for the government’s original drafts calling for the penalties for businesses that refused to close early.
The proposal, however, said that “some form of penalties need to be established,” and made no explicit reference to prison terms.
“As far as operating under the legislation is concerned,” Suga stressed, “we’re striving for appropriate responses taking human rights into consideration as we continue to seek understanding from patients and make involuntary hospitalizations.”
During this week’s budget committee debates, Suga and health minister Norihisa Tamura repeatedly argued the punishments involving the creation of criminal records were necessary, claiming that there had been cases of patients slipping out of hospitals as well as the fears raised by some governors that individuals not cooperating with contact tracing were spreading the virus.
Tamura did admit, however, that the health ministry had not been able to comprehensively identify numbers of such instances nationwide.
Some health experts on the health ministry’s panel openly questioned the merits of imposing penalties to guarantee the bills’ effectiveness, according to minutes taken at the Jan. 15 meeting.
Emboldened, Jun Azumi, the CDP Diet affairs chief, pressed the government Thursday on why it had rushed to bring the bills to the Diet, despite outstanding objections and concerns from public health experts about the legitimacy of the criminal penalties.
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