Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was forced to make a policy U-turn over the nation’s third coronavirus state of emergency due to a barrage of objections from experts who demanded stronger measures.
The miscalculation may only add to the prime minister’s woes, with his administration still unable to map out a strategy for getting the coronavirus situation under control with only two months left until the July 23 opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics.
With no clear way out of the crisis, the administration is likely to face louder calls to cancel or postpone the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The Suga administration decided on Friday to add the prefectures of Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima to the state of emergency, changing tack from an initial plan to leave them off the list. The emergency was officially declared in the three prefectures Sunday.
“The experts said stronger measures are necessary,” Suga told a news conference. “We decided on the addition based on our steady view that now is an important time for curbing infections.”
Earlier on Friday, economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is leading the government’s coronavirus response, submitted to a government advisory team of experts a plan to give a quasi-emergency status to the prefectures of Gunma, Ishikawa, Okayama, Hiroshima and Kumamoto, while keeping Hokkaido’s quasi-emergency status unchanged.
Many advisers rejected the government’s plan, with Satoshi Kamayachi, a Japan Medical Association executive board member, and others urging the government to add Hokkaido to the full state of emergency.
The backlash, described as a “rebellion” by one member of the advisory team, surprised many because the group had so far approved government plans related to coronavirus states of emergency as submitted.
Nishimura left to consult with Suga at the Prime Minister’s Office halfway through the meeting. Suga eventually relented and agreed to revise the government’s plan, saying he will respect the opinions of the experts.
Earlier, signs that experts were dissatisfied with the government’s position were seen in a Wednesday meeting of the health ministry’s advisory board on the coronavirus epidemic.
Shigeru Omi, who is head of the experts team and also sits on the ministry’s advisory board, called for the expansion of the emergency to include Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima, expressing a sense of crisis over the nationwide spread of coronavirus variants.
“It is a unanimous view of experts,” he stressed, calling on the government to take heed.
But Suga was reluctant out of concern over the economic impact of an expanded emergency. In a meeting with Nishimura and other ministers Thursday, Suga decided to put Okayama, Hiroshima and others in the quasi-emergency stage and keep the status of Hokkaido unchanged.
A government official argued that experts’ objections were expected. Nishimura, for his part, is said to have told those around him that it would be difficult to gain approval for that plan from the experts team.
Suga initially pressed ahead with his plan despite a request from the Hokkaido government Thursday night that the region be placed under the state of emergency.
Hokkaido Gov. Naomichi Suzuki and Suga have a close relationship, with Suga having helped Suzuki run for governor in 2019.
But despite their ties, the two had different views about the urgency of the Hokkaido situation.
High bar for lifting emergency
Nine prefectures are now under the state of emergency and 10 others are in the quasi-emergency stage.
A government official expressed hope that the coronavirus crisis will end in time for the Olympics. But if the situation fails to improve, public opinion will likely turn further against the Tokyo Games.
“It is possible to achieve a safe and secure games by thoroughly taking infection prevention measures,” Suga stated at a news conference Friday in a bid to allay concerns.
Amid the pressure to go ahead with the Tokyo Games, experts are calling on the government to “set a higher bar” for lifting the state of emergency, currently scheduled to expire at the end of May.
“The government may be tempted to lift the emergency quickly, but holding out a little longer leads to a brighter outcome,” Omi told a news conference Friday.
Experts are cautious as highly contagious variant strains, considered more likely to cause severe symptoms, are spreading faster than expected.
According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, almost 90% of new coronavirus infections in Japan are believed to be the result of variant strains.
Osaka Prefecture suffered a spike in new positive cases due to variants after exiting the previous state of emergency at the end of February, three weeks earlier than Tokyo and some other places.
But the medical system in Osaka has nearly collapsed and infected people have died while waiting to be hospitalized.
Doctors on the front line are therefore urging experts on the advisory team to take a harsher stance, a government source said.
The ruling coalition is, at least on the surface, fully behind Suga’s U-turn.
“It reflects the strong will of the prime minister to contain the coronavirus with powerful measures,” Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told those close to him.
“The government is not infallible,” Keiichi Ishii, secretary-general of the LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, told a news conference in defense of Suga. “It took a better direction based on expert opinion.”
Beneath the surface, however, ruling lawmakers are increasingly worried about the recent turn of events.
“It’s a rebellion of experts, whom the administration has not taken seriously until now,” an LDP member said.
“Changing the stance suddenly is the worst thing to do,” a source close to Suga said. “It leads to a loss of public trust.”
A former Cabinet minister called the situation a “political knockabout,” while a Komeito member told reporters that there was no prior notice at all from the government about the sudden change in course.
Meanwhile, the opposition is stepping up its attacks on the Suga administration.
Jun Azumi, parliamentary affairs chief of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, slammed the government’s flip-flop.
Japanese Communist Party policy leader Tomoko Tamura said that the abrupt change revealed that the government “is not seriously taking warning signals from experts.”
In a Jiji Press poll this month, the Cabinet’s approval rating stood at 32.2%, the lowest mark since Suga’s inauguration in September last year.
Some in the government believe that approval will turn up once vaccinations lead to a decline in infection cases.
However, one government source expressed worries that public support “may plummet” given citizen’s deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the administration.
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