Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is struggling to find a delicate balance between tough new measures to prevent the spread of the highly contagious omicron coronavirus variant and his desire to kick-start economic activity in the country.
The Kishida administration decided Friday to put three prefectures — including hard-hit Okinawa — under a COVID-19 quasi-state of emergency in a bid to halt a rapid rise in infections, despite calls by some to take a wait-and-see approach amid fears the measures could hurt the economy.
The swift action came amid concerns about omicron, which is not yet fully understood, as well as fears that a late response could expose the government to criticism ahead of this summer’s Upper House election.
Lessons from his predecessor
“Community transmissions of the omicron strain are becoming apparent around the nation,” Kishida said during a meeting of the government’s coronavirus response headquarters on Friday, where he declared that thee prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — would be subject to the quasi-emergency measures. “We must respond swiftly to the spread of infections in the three prefectures.”
However, not all government officials were on board regarding the timing of the declaration, as the state of infections in the three prefectures only recently reached levels warranting quasi-emergency steps.
Quasi-emergency declarations are supposed to be given to prefectures that have hit a Level 2 designation, the third-worst stage, of the government’s five-tier coronavirus alert system adopted last November. The alert level for the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa was raised to Level 2 on Tuesday, while Hiroshima and Yamaguchi in the country’s west, saw their levels raised to Level 2 on Thursday.
There were even disagreements within the government as to whether the prefectures belong in Level 2, as the occupancy rate of hospital beds — the most important factor in determining the levels — stood at around 20% in all three prefectures as of Tuesday.
Some within the Prime Minister’s Office had sought to postpone the quasi-emergency decision out of concern over the economic impact.
Still, Kishida’s decision to go ahead with the declaration — a better-safe-than-sorry approach — was prompted by the lack of information about omicron variant.
But at least one thing is clear about the variant: It is highly infectious. The proportion of those suspected of being infected with the strain among total new COVID-19 patients jumped from 16% in the week from Dec. 20 to 46% the following week.
While younger patients are believed to be at lower risk of severe symptoms, it’s unclear how the variant could affect elderly patients.
“The (spread and) speed of infection of the omicron strain is several times that of the delta strain,” a source close to Kishida said. “We cannot catch up unless we also act several times more quickly.”
Another factor thought to be swaying Kishida is worries that he may be accused of being too slow to respond ahead of the Upper House election.
His immediate predecessor, former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, was criticized by the public during his time in office for refusing to accept municipalities’ requests, including for state of emergency declarations.
“If (Kishida) rejects a request by municipalities, it will affect the public approval ratings for his Cabinet,” a government source said.
Kishida is learning from Suga’s failures in a number of ways. For example, the prime minister spent some 20 minutes explaining his quasi-emergency plans to reporters beforehand on Thursday evening, in contrast to Suga’s refusal to articulate his plans ahead of decisions by the government’s coronavirus headquarters.
Plans fall apart
The rapid spread of omicron is dealing a critical blow to Kishida’s economic recovery strategy, in addition to his envisioned virus prevention measures.
The prime minister announced an “overall picture” for his coronavirus measures in November centered around a so-called vaccine-and-testing package to ease restrictions for people with COVID-19 vaccination certificates or proof of negative test results even under quasi-emergencies or full-on emergency declarations.
However, the package was drawn up to tackle the delta variant, against which COVID-19 vaccines have been largely effective. As existing vaccines are reported to be significantly less effective against omicron, some municipal leaders, including Kanagawa Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa, have called for a review. A similar opinion was raised at a Friday meeting of the government advisory panel on basic coronavirus response policy measures.
While informing prefectural governors that the package can be halted at their discretion, the government revised its basic policy the same day to allow people to engage in group activities, such as dining together, if all attendees are tested for the virus. The move, seen as a last-ditch effort to buy time, effectively removed vaccination certificates as the basis for easing restrictions.
Shigeru Omi, head of the government panel, told reporters Friday that the vaccine and testing package will be reviewed swiftly.
Meanwhile, economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who heads the government’s coronavirus response, told a Lower House steering committee the same day that fresh virus measures must also be compatible with rebooting the economy.
“It is important that measures be taken in a way that avoids stopping the economy as much as possible,” he said.
But it’s unclear what these measures would look like, as omicron is believed to be vastly different — and far more difficult to tackle — than previous variants.
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