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Defending virus handling, Abe signals willingness to compile second extra budget



Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signaled Monday that he would be open to compiling a secondary supplementary budget, as he was forced to defend his administration’s response to the impacts of the new coronavirus under pressure from opposition party lawmakers.


Speaking before the Lower House Budget Committee, Abe stopped short of clearly affirming the government’s commitment to drawing up another extra budget, but said it would do whatever was necessary during the current Diet session to combat the spread of the pandemic.


Noting that a government panel on coronavirus experts is set to convene on Thursday, Abe said the panel would “assess the coronavirus situation in individual municipalities and provide a verdict on whether there are any areas where the state of emergency measures can be lifted.”


“But we’ll take resolute steps if we determine additional measures are necessary,” he added, responding to a demand by Yuichiro Tamaki, leader of the opposition Democratic Party for the People, to grant another round of ¥100,000 cash handouts for all residents in the country.


Monday’s Diet session followed the prime minister’s decision last week to extend the nationwide state of emergency, as the government also seeks ways to resume regular economic and social activities.


Economic policy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of the government’s response to the virus, told lawmakers the declaration may be called off in some prefectures where the number of new infections is falling.


Even in the 13 hardest-hit prefectures designated by the government as needing special vigilance, including Tokyo and Osaka, Nishimura said the decision to discontinue the emergency declaration was “on the horizon” as long as they met certain conditions based on factors such as the number of new patients with an unknown infection route and the stability of health care provision.


Scores of prefectures with relatively low numbers of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, have either already lifted or are on course to withdraw restrictive measures introduced under the state of emergency, including requests to avoid nonurgent outings and close down businesses temporarily.


The prime minister declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures on April 7 and expanded it nationwide on April 16.


Abe said at the time the government feared a mass movement of people ahead of and during the Golden Week holidays that would further spread the virus and exacerbate the situation.


The unilateral declaration, however, unleashed a backlash from some governors of prefectures with relatively low numbers of new patients.


Also on Monday, Abe pledged to augment government support in rent aid, the employment subsidy and financial aid for students, but revealed little in terms of specific plans amid intense criticism from the opposition over the time it has taken to implement rescue plans.


“I can’t help but feel the administration’s lack of a sense of speed,” said Yukio Edano, leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, pointing out that the opposition had been urging the government to increase the employment subsidy since March.


Even Michiyo Takagi of Komeito, Abe’s ruling coalition partner, pressed the prime minister to increase the daily limit on the subsidy, from ¥8,330 to ¥15,000.


In response, Abe merely said the government “seeks to materialize the proposal as soon as possible,” offering similar responses to inquiries about rents and financial support for students.


The opposition submitted a bill on Monday subsidizing up to ¥200,000 for students who have lost income from part-time jobs. For universities and technical schools that have agreed to exempt tuition fees by half, the government will provide the educational institutions with up to ¥555,000 per student.


Opposition parties including right-leaning Nippon Ishin no Kai also submitted a bill on April 28 under which the state-owned Japan Finance Corporation or the government would take over rent payments for small businesses as well as owner-managed businesses that have seen income decline by 20 percent compared to the same month last year.


The ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito set out a proposal last Friday for the government to provide two-thirds of rents of up to ¥500,000 per month in the form of bank loans for six months. Eligible recipients would be those whose incomes halved compared to the same month last year or dropped by a third on average over three months.


Edano rebuked the ruling party over its unwillingness to discuss rent aid with the opposition in late April, leading to them submitting the bill without support from the ruling parties.


“It’s almost two weeks since April 28,” Edano said. “These past two weeks have been a matter of life or death for those who’ve lost jobs, or have seen work rapidly dwindling away.”


Abe said repeatedly throughout Monday’s session that he would take opposition proposals into consideration.


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