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Japan ruling party demands review of policy limiting COVID hospitalization to severe cases

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, center, is seen speaking about the progress of coronavirus countermeasures at a meeting of relevant Cabinet officials, at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on Aug. 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Lawmakers in Japan's ruling and opposition parties have reacted sharply to government basic policy restricting COVID-19 hospitalizations to patients with severe or potentially severe symptoms to avoid pressure on the medical system amid surging infections.

    At a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) joint working group meeting on Aug. 4, a number of attendees voiced objections to the government's hospitalization restriction policy. The group decided to call on it to retract the controversial policy.

    At an out-of-session meeting of the House of Representatives Committee on Health, Labor and Welfare, Michiyo Takagi, a lower house member of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, also demanded the withdrawal of the hospitalization limitation policy. Other legislators present aired opposition to the policy, too.

    Despite the backlash, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga underlined his intention not to retract the policy to a group of reporters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on the evening of Aug. 4.

    "We decided on the policy to protect peoples' lives and health amid rapidly surging infections from the delta variant strain," Suga said. "The policy is meant to respond to emergency cases by reserving a certain number of hospital beds," he added.

    The prime minister emphasized that the restriction policy is "not a uniform one applied throughout the country," and explained: "It is a measure for the Tokyo metropolitan area and other regions witnessing an explosive spread of infections."

    The prime minister continued, "Even for patients with moderate symptoms, if they require oxygen administration or risk developing severe symptoms even when oxygen supply is unnecessary, we will have them hospitalized. Whether to admit them to hospitals will be at doctors' discretion."

    Regarding patients recuperating at home, Suga said, "We will establish a system that supplies them with pulse oximeters and ensures they can be reached by phone depending on their condition, and which allows them to be immediately hospitalized if their condition worsens. We will explain these points carefully and seek understanding."

    On the evening of Aug. 4, LDP policy chief Hakubun Shimomura effectively backpedaled on the LDP working group's request that the government withdraw the limited hospitalization policy. He told a BS Fuji program: "The request is more of a call for reviewing and rewriting (the health ministry document presenting the policy), rather than a retraction. It's not about going back to the drawing board."

    Shimomura did assert that the document "has passages that could mislead many of the public. They could be misconstrued as stating that people with moderate or lighter symptoms are urged to lie at home until recovering."

    He also revealed that Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura told him during talks that they would rewrite the hospitalization restriction policy. Tamura will offer a new explanation on the matter on Aug. 5, in an out-of-session meeting of the House of Councillors Committee on Health, Welfare and Labor.

    The government unveiled the controversial policy on Aug. 2. It allows for COVID-19 patient hospitalization in areas with many infections to be limited to people with severe symptoms or a high risk of developing them. It was not initially clear how the policy treats moderate cases or which regions it applied to, leading to concern among the public that many patients with moderate symptoms could be refused hospitalization.

    (Japanese original by Hidenori Yazawa, Lifestyle and Medical News Department, and Shun Kawaguchi, Political News Department)

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