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Editorial: Sudden vaccine minister switch risks hobbling Japan's COVID response

What ever happened to the Japanese government's burning commitment to "presuming the worst possible situation" when it came to the coronavirus pandemic?

    At the end of March, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida compelled Noriko Horiuchi to resign as vaccination minister. The move was triggered by the expiry of Horiuchi's other portfolio as Olympics and Paralympics minister, cutting the number of Cabinet positions by one.

    The minister in charge of promoting COVID-19 vaccines is responsible for securing vaccine supplies and distributing them to local governments, which administer the shots. The minister also overseas public information campaigns and coordinating vaccination efforts among the central government's ministries and agencies, and between these and local bodies. The post was conceived as part of pandemic countermeasures, and we question the wisdom of switching the person in this essential role even as COVID-19 infections remain rampant.

    The Kishida administration must have seen the end of the Olympics and Paralympics portfolio coming. Nevertheless, when the Kishida Cabinet was formed in October last year, the new prime minister assigned Horiuchi double-duty as vaccine minister. The appointment of the hitherto relative political unknown and Cabinet rookie Horiuchi was intended to show that Kishida was looking to bring younger people and women into his government.

    However, as the infection wave powered by the coronavirus's omicron variant broke over Japan, Horiuchi stumbled repeatedly in her Diet comments, and members of the ruling parties began to mutter that she did not have the gravitas for her post.

    We wonder if Kishida appointed Horiuchi, who belongs to his own faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) despite her relatively few election victories, based on the premise that she would be later removed. If that is the case, it raises serious doubts about whether the Kishida administration understands the vital nature of the vaccine minister's work.

    Under Kishida's predecessor Yoshihide Suga, Taro Kono was vaccine minister, appointed with the expectation that he would get things done. Kono was criticized for his controlling manner with ministries and agencies, and his coercive vaccination promotion tactics. But his vaccine focus was obvious.

    The Kishida administration took its time introducing the third round of coronavirus shots, and the boosters came too late to help prevent the sixth infection wave at the start of 2022. Whether the government was assuming the worst, it cannot complain if its vaccine strategy is called out for being too little, too late.

    Vaccine promotion is essential for protecting against another infection surge. A coronavirus quasi-state of emergency has been lifted for the entire country, but case numbers remain high, and are increasing in some areas.

    The vaccine minister's portfolio has been assigned to Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno. Along with pushing ahead with third COVID-19 doses for the working age population, there must be speedy coordination with local governments for a possible fourth shot.

    However, the chief Cabinet secretary position is a busy one, and Matsuno is also already in charge of both North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals and the policy on U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture. Matsuno has said that "all of these are of utmost importance to the administration," but will he be able to fulfill his duties in all of them? This latest Cabinet post move cannot be allowed to jam up vaccination efforts.

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