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Osaka governor's loose benchmarks for demanding end to state of emergency spark outcry

Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura announces benchmarks for requesting an end to the state of emergency at the start of a meeting of Osaka Prefecture's coronavirus countermeasures headquarters, on Feb. 1, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadashi Kako)

OSAKA -- Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura is facing resistance from some of his own top bureaucrats over the prefecture's new benchmarks for demanding the central government end the current coronavirus sate of emergency, while health experts are warning that lifting the emergency too soon could allow infections to resurge.

    The Osaka Prefectural Government set the new standards as the national government was moving to extend the emergency declaration for 10 prefectures including Osaka and Tokyo. However, the standards were drawn up in a rush under the direction of Gov. Yoshimura, who is known for giving high priority to get the local economy going, and they are noticeably more relaxed than those set by the central government.

    "If the national government is going to extend the state of emergency, then it should also set clear benchmarks for lifting it," Yoshimura told an emergency Feb. 1 meeting of Osaka Prefecture's coronavirus countermeasures headquarters. "The declaration is built on a foundation of a lot of sacrifice."

    Following this opening statement, he announced the hurriedly assembled standards. Members of the prefecture's expert panel had been asked for their opinions on the policy only a few hours before.

    The two benchmarks are: (1) that new infections drop to an average of 300 or below for the previous one-week period, and (2) that the occupancy rate of beds for serious COVID-19 cases sinks below 60%. If one of these conditions is met for seven consecutive days, the prefecture will ask to be released from the state of emergency after taking expert opinion into account.

    According to one source close to the prefectural government, behind the rush to set the new benchmarks were "plaintive cries of business owners in financial crisis reaching the governor. So he very much wants to get rid of the barriers to economic activity as soon as he possibly can."

    According to statistics released by credit research firm Tokyo Shoko Research Ltd. on Feb. 2, business bankruptcies due to the coronavirus pandemic have reached 1,000 nationwide, many of them in the restaurant industry. At 94, Osaka Prefecture has the second most such bankruptcies in Japan, behind Tokyo's 247.

    Coronavirus case numbers in the prefecture are declining, but more than 70% of its serious COVID-19 case beds were occupied as of Feb. 3, placing the local medical system under continued strain.

    At the Feb. 1 countermeasure headquarters meeting, there was plenty of criticism of the benchmarks, based on central government opinion. The national government's target for lifting the emergency declaration is the lowering of the level of pandemic status from "Stage 4" (explosive infections) to "Stage 3" (surge in infections) on the 4-level scale, which is among six indicators set by an expert subcommittee, though the government says it will make a comprehensive decision. The target for serious coronavirus case bed occupancy is 50%.

    Prefectural expert committee chairman and Osaka University medical school professor Kazunori Tomono laid out his arguments for more severe benchmarks in a written document, based on the current state of the area's medical infrastructure. He also asked the prefecture to consider asking to have the state of emergency lifted once both benchmarks are met.

    Whether to lift the emergency declaration is ultimately up to the central government, prompting one senior Osaka Prefectural official to state at the meeting, "I think it will be difficult to explain to the people why we would demand an end to the emergency based on thinking different from the national government's." The official urged a rethink of the benchmarks, but Gov. Yoshimura cut the person off, saying, "If the national government says 'that's no good,' then it will be forced to explain why to the country. If the prefecture believes that the emergency declaration is inappropriate, then we ought to take the position that it should be lifted, right?"

    Approached for comment by the Mainichi Shimbun, Tomono said, "If a decision is made based on just one benchmark, can that really be called the 'comprehensive judgment" that the central government is talking about? If infections start to spread again because the state of emergency was lifted early, the medical system won't be able to deal with it anymore."

    (Japanese original by Yumi Shibamura and Masaki Ishikawa, Osaka City News Department)

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