The following is the gist of interpellations at the Lower House budget committee meeting on Jan. 25, 2021:
State of emergency declaration
Shigeyuki Goto (Liberal Democratic Party): Under what conditions will the government lift the declaration?
Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura: (As for Tokyo,) one criterion for lifting the declaration is for the daily number of new cases to stand around 500. But that doesn’t mean the declaration will be lifted as soon as the figure falls below that number. We will not automatically apply criteria but make decisions based on the (six) criteria (related to the infection situation) by comprehensively assessing the hospital bed situation and other factors.
Goto: What is the prime minister’s basic approach to COVID-19 countermeasures?
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga: Risk management is the key to anti-infection measures. We need to take tough measures especially for the current outbreak.
Kenichiro Ueno (Liberal Democratic Party): How does the prime minister view the virus situation since the declaration of the state of emergency?
Suga: We are in a crucial stage that we must respond to with a sense of urgency. The recent infection situation shows that the total number of people infected in Tokyo and three prefectures is slowly declining. But experts told us that we need further analyses to determine whether infection cases are dropping (steadily). We are dedicating all our strength to be able to quickly emerge from the most serious level of “Stage Four” by closely cooperating with prefectural governments.
Kenji Eda (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan): Do you have any regrets about your past crisis responses?
Suga: I must simply accept the criticism concerning the emergency declaration. I am dealing with the outbreak with the sense of urgency that I am responsible for saving as many people’s lives as possible and preventing a further outbreak.
Masato Imai (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan): Is it okay to recognize that politicians, not experts, are responsible if infections spread as a result (of the government’s anti-COVID-19 measures)?
Suga: I take full responsibility because I am the one who makes the final judgment based on experts’ opinions.
Goto: The government should build a swift and thought-out vaccination system and appropriately disclose information on the side reactions (side effects) of vaccines so the public can be vaccinated without concern.
Suga: Vaccines are the key anti-infection measure, so we would like to swiftly deliver safe and effective vaccines to the public. We will secure vaccines for all citizens and smoothly administer them. We are preparing to build a thought-out system through close cooperation with municipalities, which are responsible for handling vaccinations, by providing information and support for updating [the government’s] vaccination management system. We want to release accurate and easy-to-understand information that is based on scientific knowledge, including side reactions and effectiveness, for the public to be vaccinated at their own discretion.
Karen Makishima (Liberal Democratic Party): What can the government do to deliver accurate information on the status of vaccinations and to begin vaccinations early?
Minister in charge of administrative and regulatory reform Taro Kono: Vaccine distribution schedules have yet to be decided, but we want to start vaccinations for medical workers possibly in late February. We want to hold a [coronavirus vaccination] simulation on Jan. 27 to see how long it takes (to vaccinate) and how big the system needs to be. We will inform municipalities of the results and distribution schedules as soon as they are determined to make a thorough [vaccination] system.
Kiyohiko Toyama (Komeito): People are concerned about vaccine side reactions. What kinds of measures will the government take to supply vaccines with a guarantee of safety?
Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Norihisa Tamura: We want to explain to doctors in clearly understandable terms as soon as possible. We will gather reports on side reactions comprehensively at medical institutions and set up [counseling] offices at municipal government and central government offices. Once vaccinations start, we will gather and analyze information and release the results to the public.
Toyama: The government should disclose the vaccine approval process to the public as much as it can.
Suga: In order to strengthen the public’s trust in vaccines, it is important to disclose information on safety and effectiveness as much as possible and to provide accurate information in an easy-to-understand manner. We want to try to swiftly disclose documents regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and minutes of a (health ministry) council, except for information related to corporate intellectual property rights, by reference to advanced cases in other countries.
Junya Ogawa (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan): Is the prime minister expecting or trying to secure vaccines in the first half of this year?
Suga: I am trying to do so.
Securing of hospital beds
Goto: It is important to clarify the sharing of roles among medical institutions in each region.
Health Minister Tamura: We may be able to concentrate coronavirus patients in central medical institutions in each region. We may need some medical institutions to provide support when rehabilitation is needed (for coronavirus patients). Medical institutions that cannot accept coronavirus patients can assume this role. The sharing of roles is very important.
Eda: I want the government to determine the number of hospital beds across the nation and realign them by breaking down bureaucratic sectionalism.
Suga: It is my responsibility to break down bureaucratic sectionalism to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. I will steadily deal with the issue.
Akira Nagatsuma (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan): I want the government to ask national universities and others to try to increase the number of hospital beds by consulting regional governments.
Suga: I will do so.
Nagatsuma: That is a brief reply.
Suga: I have instructed them to take the initiative in securing hospital beds.
Nagatsuma: If cluster infections occur at hospitals, will the government take care of the hospitals to prevent them from going bankrupt?
Suga: The government wants to compensate the medical institutions that accept coronavirus patients to prevent them from losing revenue.
Nagatsuma: I want the government to make cross-prefectural adjustments to (secure medical systems) as it does at the time of a disaster. I want the prime minister to state that he will take the initiative in giving instructions.
Health Minister Tamura: Creating [a nationwide medical system] from scratch will cause major confusion and defunctionalize existing systems. We want to deal with the outbreak through cooperation within each municipality.
Suga: I have entrusted the work of coordination to the health minister. But I am briefed on the daily number of new beds (for coronavirus patients) almost every day.
Revision to the special measures law to tackle new types of influenza
Goto: What is the purpose of the revision?
Suga: We have to make (anti-COVID-19) measures more effective and curb the spread of infection without fail. The revision is intended to make a necessary review by making provisions for support and penalties with due consideration for the rights of business owners and individuals. We have submitted a bill to the current Diet session after listening to the opinions of both ruling and opposition parties.
Eda: I want the prime minister to quickly hold a party leaders’ meeting with (CDPJ) chief Yukio Edano.
Suga: Whether you belong to the ruling or opposition blocs is irrelevant to stopping the outbreak. I will sincerely accept proposals from the opposition parties. I feel absolutely no reluctance in holding a party leaders’ meeting for (the revision to) the special measures law (and related laws).
Revision to the Infectious Diseases Control Law
Ogawa: I want the government to withdraw the prison term for individuals with COVID-19 who refuse to be hospitalized (which is included in the revised law.)
Suga: There were cases in which COVID-19 patients escaped from medical institutions without permission. I have received an urgent proposal from the National Governors’ Association calling for the introduction of punishment (for COVID-19 patients who refused to be hospitalized.) We want to establish penalties to enhance the effectiveness of anti-infection measures.
Go To Travel campaign
Ogawa: One trillion yen is allocated to the Go To Travel campaign in the (third) supplementary budget (for fiscal 2020). I want the government to withdraw (the relevant budget) and revise (the supplementary budget).
Suga: The initiative will support regional economies, and we have decided to extend the project (until the end of June) when we compiled economic measures at the end of last year. The project has been suspended to put all our effort into taming the outbreak. But (relevant budget) was earmarked to restart the campaigns at an appropriate time.
Imai: The government should make concrete basic plans for border control. I want the government to take strict measures to prevent coronavirus variants from entering Japan.
Suga: I feel a strong sense of urgency in addressing variants. We will steadily tighten border control measures and the monitoring system by closely watching infection situations in other countries.
Yuichi Goto (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan): Joe Biden was sworn in as U.S. president. What do you think is the biggest change that will bring to Japan?
Suga: I do not think it will cause a major change to the Japan-U.S. alliance. The fight against COVID-19 is important to both countries, and both take exactly the same approach to climate change. The same is true for the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific, an initiative on which we worked with (former) President Donald Trump.
Yuichi Goto: When will you have a teleconference with President Biden?
Suga: We are currently coordinating to hold one as soon as possible. I think we will be able to hold one.
Prime Minister’s health
Ogawa: You have a squeaky voice. How are you feeling?
Suga: I have a sore throat, and my voice does not sound as it usually does. But I’m fine. (Abridged)