BY SATOSHI SUGIYAMA, STAFF WRITER
On Friday night, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga found himself standing behind the same lectern where, just 36 days prior, he had announced that the nation’s second COVID-19 state of emergency would be lifted. But now, as he called a third emergency, he was reneging on a pledge that there wouldn’t be another one on his watch.
“I told you that I’d do everything I could to ensure that there wouldn’t be another state of emergency, so I apologize from the bottom of my heart for doing so and causing inconvenience to so many people,” Suga told a news conference that saw him attempt to evade responsibility for the new measures, blaming them instead on virulent new strains of COVID-19 that dramatically drove up case numbers in Osaka, Tokyo, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures.
It was an outcome no one desired, though health experts had warned that a resurgence would be inevitable and advised policymakers to dial back restrictions gradually.
In fact, Suga’s administration had been unwilling to proceed with a new state of emergency until early last week, pinning their hopes instead on local leaders introducing stricter actions — including shortened business hours aimed at stemming foot traffic — that they could deploy without the central government’s permission.
In the days leading up to the announcement, administration officials had become increasingly exasperated by what they perceived as municipal leaders’ unwillingness to take action on their own. In their view, the local leaders were threatening to both damage the economy and cast yet another cloud over the Tokyo Olympics by pleading with the administration at the last minute to take the toughest course of action possible.
The series of behind-the-scenes developments highlight an unresolved structural divide between the central and local governments over how to effectively and expeditiously implement virus countermeasures, even as a flood of COVID-19 cases nationwide is once again overwhelming hospitals.
“Naturally, municipalities are the ones that implement (COVID-19 countermeasures), and the central government will support them based on that premise,” a senior administration official said on April 9.
The root of the latest surge in cases can be traced back to late February, when the central government agreed to the early removal of Osaka Prefecture from the second state of emergency after being pressed by Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura.
At that time, roughly a week before the designated conclusion of the measure and with daily infection numbers staying below 100, Yoshimura argued in favor of its early termination, saying, “the state of emergency should be enforced with moderation and shouldn’t drag on.”
Instead of completely lifting restrictions, the Osaka Prefectural Government enacted its own measures in the city of Osaka, asking restaurants to voluntarily close by 9 p.m. and stop serving alcohol by 8:30 p.m. in exchange for compensation. Health experts identified eating and drinking with a party of five or more as a particularly high-risk activity that could spread the virus.
But Yoshimura’s plan soon faltered.
Residents, worn out by restrictions and encouraged by the warmer spring weather, returned to the streets, pushing up foot traffic. As a result, new cases attributed to variants with stronger transmissibility began to skyrocket in late March.
On March 25, Yoshimura announced that he would expand the business hour restrictions prefecture-wide starting April 1 but insisted on keeping the closure request at a relatively late 9 p.m. Five days later, Osaka Mayor Ichiro Matsui told reporters that stronger measures under a quasi-emergency declaration would be necessary starting April 5, remarks that apparently got ahead of both Yoshimura and the central government.
The administration, meanwhile, was frustrated by the lack of urgency in Osaka and skeptical that introducing the more stringent quasi-emergency measures would even make much of a difference.
As new daily cases in Osaka surpassed those in Tokyo in late March, a senior official said that the administration was asking the prefecture “to do everything it can now,” adding that it hoped Osaka would take the initiative and shorten business hours as soon as the following day.
“The bottom line is municipalities need to thoroughly implement COVID-19 countermeasures even before asking for quasi-emergency measures,” the official said the following day, noting options such as shortening business hours earlier than 8 p.m. or expanding businesses covered by the restrictions beyond restaurants.
But on March 31 Yoshimura instead asked the administration to implement the quasi-emergency measures, which the central government decided to apply to six cities in Osaka, Hyogo and Miyagi prefectures starting April 5. Those measures allow local leaders to order businesses to close early and slap those that refuse to comply with fines of up to ¥200,000.
The precedent opened the floodgates, something Suga’s administration had hoped to avoid. Just a week later, Tokyo, Okinawa and Kyoto prefectures were also subject to the pre-emergency measures.
In the administration’s view, local leaders appeared to rely on the central government for authority in an attempt to avoid becoming the target of criticism by the public over the fresh constraints.
The administration was particularly annoyed at Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who had asked for stricter measures but initially assembled only a team of roughly 100 people to inspect whether the thousands of restaurants in the capital were implementing coronavirus guidance.
Suga and Koike have often been at odds over their responses to the pandemic, with the prime minister exercising a degree of caution in his dealings with the popular governor.
Koike, a career politician known for her ability to grasp popular trends early and rally the public to her side, worked with the governors of neighboring prefectures to demand a second state of emergency earlier this year. Suga is understood to have disdain for her style, which he is said to view as political theater.
But even with the quasi-emergency measures in place, the variants continued to rage in Osaka and elsewhere, prompting the public, governors and even public health experts like Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s subcommittee on its virus response, to call for the consideration of another state of emergency.
For the administration, which had hoped to contain the virus with stricter measures below that scope, being forced to make such a call was seen as a slippery slope, and despite mounting pressure, it remained hesitant.
“If the state of emergency were ineffective, then that’s it,” the senior official said on April 13, describing it as the administration’s “trump card.” “There are many things municipalities can still do under the stronger measures (before asking for a state of emergency).”
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato sought to clarify the differences between the stricter measures and a full-blown state of emergency on April 16, when the government decided to apply the quasi-emergency measures to cities in Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba and Aichi prefectures.
“The state of emergency is a measure used when infections are spreading rapidly nationwide and are feared to significantly affect people’s livelihood and the economy, while the stronger measures are meant to contain infections within certain areas … (and) not allow them to become another nationwide wave of case,” Kato said.
Asked whether infections were already rampant across the country since roughly a half of its population lives in the prefectures under the stricter measures, Kato dodged the question, instead saying that the measures would prevent the situation from getting worse.
These hopes have been shattered.
On April 18, Osaka reported a record 1,219 new cases. On Thursday, virus patients in serious condition in the prefecture outnumbered beds available for them.
Finally, roughly two weeks after the quasi-emergency measures were introduced, the period necessary to determine their effectiveness, the administration conceded it was time to consider a new emergency.
”I don’t know about the effectiveness until we do it, but as long as we’re doing it, we should be determined to do it,” the senior official said on April 19.
The same day, the Osaka governor suggested a third emergency should include the temporary closures of restaurants and shopping malls to reduce foot traffic, a dramatic departure from the government’s approach, which had focused on restaurant business hours. The emergency, Yoshimura insisted, should also last between three weeks to a month — longer than the time frame envisioned by the administration, taking the economic impact into account.
Koike, meanwhile, was also considering an emergency request, but wanted it to be short and have a narrow focus in terms of the businesses that would have to reduce operating hours or close temporarily.
After days of discussions with municipalities and among Cabinet members, the administration settled on a 17-day plan that primarily asks department stores, karaoke parlors and restaurants that serve alcohol to temporarily close and organizers to hold events without spectators.
At Friday evening’s news conference, a wary Suga explained that the emergency was required to stifle the virus “within a short period with targeted actions” during the Golden Week holidays.
But even with this targeted approach, it remains to be seen how effective the measures will be — or if it will even be possible to make such a determination.
“If it wasn’t Golden Week, I don’t think we’d have taken a step as powerful as this,” the senior official said the same day. “It’ll be difficult to automatically extend this state of emergency … (and) it’s going to be difficult to assess its effectiveness.”