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Virus outbreak prompts Japan cross-party talks on building pricey hospital ship

The silhouette of the Diamond Princess cruise ship is seen in waters off of Tsurumi Ward, Yokohama, in this unrelated Feb. 5, 2020 file photo. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

TOKYO -- Calls from across the Japanese political spectrum for a hospital ship to be built are growing as the spread of the new coronavirus becomes more serious.

Such a vessel would serve as a mobile hospital during times of war or natural disasters, and both Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Katsunobu Kato and Minister of Defense Taro Kono have announced they intend to look into its viability.

Additionally, an all-party forum seeking construction of the ship will take place on March 3, the first meeting of its kind to be held in seven years. Attendees intend to encourage the government to start preparations to build the ship.

Interest in using a hospital ship has been high before, including during the 1990 Persian Gulf crisis and the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. In April 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake, an all-party group to promote the construction of a hospital ship was established.

But investigations by the Cabinet Office into a multipurpose ship for use in disasters reported in March 2013 that a single vessel would cost between 14 billion to 35 billion yen (around $126 million to $314 million) to build, and that running and maintaining the ship would require around 900 million yen to 2.5 billion yen a year.

The high costs and the ship's limited usefulness in regular times became a barrier for the project, and the hospital ship idea was eventually scrapped.

However, Health Minister Kato said at a House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting on Feb. 12, "There is a risk of infections when dispatching people (to hospitals). We may very well utilize a ship with the capabilities of a hospital. We will investigate our options."

At a Feb. 14 press conference, Defense Minister Kono also revealed that he had instructed Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) to investigate whether there was a need for such a ship. It has also been decided that the first cross-party forum since December 2012 would be held to discuss the issue.

Another group of legislators from the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), among others, is planning to establish a cross-party group on Feb. 27 as they aim to sponsor a bill to obligate the use of a hospital ship.

However, the issues around the high costs of building such a vessel remain, and with personnel shortages at the Self-Defense Forces, there are numerous problems facing the project before it can become a reality.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe, Political News Department)

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