The government’s coronavirus response was the subject of scrutiny at the Lower House Budget Committee session Monday, with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yet again making a case for vaccines being “the decisive factor” in fighting the virus.

In response to Komeito lawmaker Keigo Masuya’s question on the delay in vaccine approval in Japan compared with other countries, Suga explained that the country’s number of COVID-19 patients, which is significantly lower than the United States and many European countries, made it difficult to collect data through clinical trials.

“In addition, differences among races are expected regarding (the effectiveness of) the vaccines, so there need to be certain clinical trials targeting Japanese people and not just a reliance solely on clinical trial data from the U.S. and European countries,” Suga said.

“As a result of paying attention to their efficacy and safety, it takes time … the government will work together with prefectural and municipal governments to ensure that people can get vaccinated while feeling safe.”

Committee debates are taking place at a time when the government is contemplating whether to lift the state of emergency in certain areas where the number of new COVID-19 cases is declining.

The central government is reportedly seeking to convene a task force meeting Friday, the day before the revised law on coronavirus measures and other relevant revised infectious disease prevention law will take effect. At the meeting, according to media reports, the prime minister may lift the state of emergency in some regions.

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of vaccine rollout, presented projections to the committee that the government is expected to secure enough doses for early inoculations of health care workers slated to begin mid-February, and it plans to give the inoculation twice from the same manufacturer. Regarding their efficacy, he assured the Lower House lawmakers that this will not change because of mutations.

Still, the public’s confidence in vaccines is not overwhelmingly enthusiastic, according to polls released Monday. A TBS/JNN poll showed 60% of respondents want to receive vaccines, a 12-percentage point jump from last month. But a Yomiuri daily poll revealed only 18% of respondents want to receive vaccination “immediately,” with 65% of them saying they would like to get inoculated but are not in any rush to take their turn.

Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yuki Waseda rebuked Cabinet ministers for a lack of clarity over schedules of vaccine approval and the supply for each municipality.

“It’s as if you’re trying to work on a puzzle with incomplete pieces,” she said.

Health minister Norihisa Tamura sympathized with her frustration, repeatedly apologizing for the ambiguity. But he also pointed out that it is the first time Japan will be conducting a massive, nationwide vaccination scheme and vowed to provide support for the local officials overseeing the vaccination in their areas.

“We don’t exactly know, essentially, the process of how vaccines will be imported, which is something that’s going to be decided from now on, because they’ve not been approved yet,” Tamura said, adding that the government will compile a guideline on vaccine transportation.

“Even if we know, we’re in a situation where we’re unable to” make it public, he said.

Suga echoed Tamura’s testimony, saying that the exact vaccine approval date is unclear. It has been reported the Pfizer vaccine will be approved as early as Feb. 15.

Kono reiterated his previous comment that vaccine export restrictions imposed by the European Union might affect Japan’s vaccine delivery schedule. To ascertain the timetable, he said the government needs to talk to the EU and the manufacturers and then notify the municipalities once it is decided.

The future of the Go To domestic tourism subsidy program was another subject of deliberation at the committee.

Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Hajime Sasaki highlighted the tourism industry’s appeals for the early resumption of the Go To Travel program, especially by businesses in rural areas with fewer COVID-19 patients. Transportation minister Kazuyoshi Akaba said additional measures to prevent virus transmission need to be implemented for the program to resume. The current government’s goal, he stressed, is to bring the outbreaks under control before restarting the Go To Travel program.

“The government is still considering how to resume it, but I think one method could be a resumption in certain designated areas, as the idea has been supported by many,” Akaba said. “Either way, we’re going to make sure we can resume it smoothly at an appropriate time while we listen to people’s opinions.”

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