TOKYO -- After coming under fire for abruptly asking schools across Japan to temporarily close down without consulting experts, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now emphasizing the role of experts in the government's moves to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The government decided at a March 20 meeting of its task force on coronavirus infections not to extend its request for school closures throughout Japan after the spring break. Organizers of major events, meanwhile, are being asked to "exercise caution" to prevent infections with the virus.
At the meeting, Prime Minister Abe emphasized that the government was respecting experts' views, repeating phrases such as "based on analysis and recommendations by the panel of experts ..." and "since experts have expressed their views ..."
The task force's March 19 recommendations state that "in areas where infections are being brought under control, authorities should consider discontinuing their requests to refrain from activities that have a low risk of spreading infections on a step-by-step basis."
Prime Minister Abe suddenly announced at a Feb. 27 meeting of the task force that the government would ask schools across the nation to close down, stirring nationwide controversy. This move came in spite of the government's plan unveiled two days earlier to ask prefectural governments to request that school operators temporarily close schools "in an appropriate manner."
The prime minister's office had failed to sufficiently coordinate its views with the health and education ministries before the prime minister announced the decision. Abe subsequently acknowledged that he never consulted with experts over his decision.
At a House of Representatives Budget Committee session on Feb. 28, Prime Minister Abe emphasized that his decision on school closures was a "political judgment."
"I deemed pre-emptive actions necessary. I think politics should shoulder full responsibility in making final decisions," he said.
Some within the ruling camp, which had not been consulted over the decision in advance, criticized the prime minister for going ahead with the move on his own authority.
Due to the temporary closure of Japan's schools, people raising children have been forced to shoulder an extra burden, such as having to take time off from work to look after their children. Many members of the public have been critical of the decision to ask all schools, even those in areas where infections with the coronavirus were not prevalent, to close down.
The latest policy shift has opened the way for schools in areas where there are few people who have contracted the virus to reopen in the new academic year beginning in April.
At the March 20 meeting, however, the prime minister himself failed to explicitly mention an end to the government's request for nationwide school closures. Instead, he left the role of providing a basic policy direction to education minister Koichi Hagiuda. The move was apparently aimed at fending off criticism that the prime minister had been acting on his own authority.
Meanwhile, the government will in effect continue to ask organizers of large-scale events to refrain from proceeding with the gatherings. Close attention had been focused on whether the prime minister would continue to stand by the request he abruptly made on Feb. 26 to refrain from going ahead with such events.
The panel of experts recommended at a March 19 meeting that "organizers should continue to exercise caution in deciding whether to go ahead with large-scale events nationwide while evaluating the risks involved."
Based on this recommendation, Prime Minister Abe called during the latest task force meeting for event organizers to "take sufficient care" to prevent the spread of infections. However, he stopped short of explicitly stating that the government would continue its request to refrain from holding large-scale gatherings. Instead, he suggested that the government will leave the decision on whether or not to hold such events to the discretion of their organizers in line with recommendations by the experts' panel.
Since the prime minister evaded clarifying the government policy on the matter, his explanation has given the public the impression that the government's policy is half-baked.
The panel of experts takes the position that vigilance is still needed in some areas, particularly urban areas, against the spread of infections.
As there are no clear prospects that the spread of infections can be brought under control nationwide in the foreseeable future, the government is being compelled to choose between continuing or relaxing its policy of seeking restrictions of gatherings of many people to prevent infections.
Moreover, since the panel of experts has not clarified the details of infections with the new coronavirus by region, local bodies could hesitate in deciding whether to continue school closures in their areas.
(Japanese original by Takenori Noguchi, Political News Department)