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Japan experts decry Abe's 'politics led' viral response as UK takes science-based approach

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen giving a press conference on March 14, 2020, concerning revisions to the law that allow the government to declare a national emergency, at the prime minister's residence. (Pool Photo)

TOKYO -- Following Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "arbitrary decision" to close all schools across the country from March 2 to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, experts in viral infections have criticized the government for ignoring them when formulating plans to combat the pandemic.

Tokyo's response has contrasted with the science-based measures being used by the U.K. government, with one expert airing their frustration by saying, "(In Japan) science has lost to politics."

Nobuhiko Okabe, the director-general of the Kawasaki City Institute for Public Health, looked defeated as he told the Japan National Press Club on March 10 that it was "deeply regrettable" that the government had not paid attention to scientific advice.

Okabe is one of the members of the government's panel of experts, which offered recommendations on the dangers of gatherings in enclosed spaces and other issues based on scientific knowledge at the end of February.

Nevertheless, Abe decided to act in response to national opinion polling which suggested many members of the public felt the government's response to the viral threat had been slow. He decided to call for wide-scale school closures and event cancellations or delays, among other measures that were not suggested by scientific experts.

At present there are still prefectures in Japan which have yet to confirm infections from the novel coronavirus, and questions about the factual basis for these measures came from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Immediately after the decision, Okabe complained that such measures "were not discussed" by the expert panel. Another panel member said, "Because schools across Japan closed simultaneously, we cannot verify to what extent these steps contain the novel coronavirus."

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined the country's plan to fight the new spread of the virus at a March 12 press conference by saying, "At all stages, we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time." Flanked by England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Johnson made five references to science or scientific evidence in the first eight minutes of their address to the public.

Johnson went as far as asking people who have symptoms of the virus to self-isolate at home for a period of seven days, but stopped short of asking for school closures, saying, "We are not -- repeat not -- closing schools now. The scientific advice is that this could do more harm than good at this time."

Later during the same press conference, Vallance emphasized the government's reasoning behind leaving schools open for the time being, saying, "Schools, it's true, that there's some effect in closing schools, but that effect is minimal, and actually, you'd have to do it for 13 to 16 weeks or longer."

Vallance also rejected the efficacy of travel bans to the U.K., saying: "Quite early on we looked at the question of stopping flights, and the assessment was that if we stopped flights directly from China at the beginning, unless you got something like a 95% effect, in other words, if you could stop all of the routes from China to the UK by 95%, the effect on the delay of the epidemic was minimal."

According to the U.K. government on March 16, 1,543 people had been confirmed as infected with the novel coronavirus, and 55 had died. At a March 16 press conference Johnson said that based on scientific advice, people who have family members with symptoms should stay at home under self-isolation for 14 days.

The UK government appeared to be changing its policies based on the current state of infections both in and out of the country, but it did not say it would be putting in place entry controls or school closures.

Kenji Shibuya, a professor and director of the Institute of Population Health at King's College London, said of the difference between the Japanese and U.K. government responses, "In Japan, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's chief medical and global health officer isn't even visible. Ineffective measures are being enacted under politics-led thinking."

(Japanese original by Go Kumagai, Yuki Ogawa and Mayumi Nobuta, Science & Environment News Department)

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