• Reuters, KYODO

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Japan’s health minister on Wednesday signaled the government may consider rolling back a controversial new policy asking COVID-19 patients with less serious symptoms to isolate at home rather than going to the hospital.

But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, speaking to reporters later in the day, said that he would not withdraw the policy, but was instead seeking the public’s understanding that it would not necessarily be implemented uniformly nationwide. Moderate cases who need to be hooked up to a ventilator, he said, would be hospitalized.

Suga’s comments came just hours after his ruling Liberal Democratic Party decided at a meeting to urge the government to withdraw the policy.

The back-and-forth, which came amid rising criticism over the policy, underscores Tokyo’s struggle in dealing with a surge in delta variant cases that is overshadowing the Olympic Games.

Suga said Monday that only COVID-19 patients who are seriously ill and those at risk of becoming so would be hospitalized, while others isolate at home, a shift in policy some fear may lead to an increase in deaths.

Health minister Norihisa Tamura defended the policy shift, saying that by asking people with less serious symptoms to isolate at home, Japan could ensure it did not run out of hospital beds for people in need of intensive care.

“The pandemic has entered a new phase. … Unless we have enough beds, we can’t bring people into hospitals. We’re acting pre-emptively on this front,” Tamura told the Diet.

“If things don’t turn out as we expect, we can roll back the policy,” he said, adding that the policy shift was a move to deal with the unexpectedly fast spread of the new variant.

In another revelation, Shigeru Omi, Japan’s top medical adviser, said he had not been consulted beforehand on the government’s new policy. Tamura said he believed there was no problem in the government making the decision by itself.

The outcry is another setback for Suga, who has seen support plunge due to his handling of the pandemic ahead of general elections to be held this year.

Opposition parties agreed on Wednesday to ask the government to abandon the hospitalization policy, an opposition lawmaker said.

Even a lawmaker from Komeito, a coalition partner of Suga’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, argued for a review or rollback.

Japan has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus cases, topping a record 14,000 infections on Wednesday. Tokyo also saw a record-high the same day, confirming 4,166 new infections after seeing 3,709 cases on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases said the same day that the delta variant had made up roughly 90% of new infections in the Kanto region and about 60% of new cases in the Kansai region as of the beginning of this month.

Suga and Olympics organizers say there is no link between the July 23-Aug. 8 Summer Games and the sharp increase in cases.

Omi told the Diet the hosting of the Games may have affected public sentiment, suggesting the event was eroding the effect of government requests for people to stay home.

Imposing a nationwide state of emergency could be an option to deal with the pandemic, he said. States of emergency are already in place in several prefectures, as well as Tokyo.

“Political leaders are sending out messages to the public in earnest, but probably not as strongly and consistently as hoped,” Omi said. “We’re seeing COVID-19 clusters emerge more broadly including at schools and offices,” he said.

Kenji Shibuya, former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, said the hospitalization policy would likely cause more deaths of home-care patients but reversing course would be tough since available beds were filling up fast.

He said the only other options would be to set up field hospitals or revise the infectious disease law to give the government more authority to order large public hospitals to take more COVID-19 patients, a step it has rejected in the past.

“They are paying the price now,” he said.

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