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Three first-time ministers to oversee COVID-19 response

In the newly launched Kishida Cabinet, three first-time ministers will oversee COVID-19 countermeasures. Goto Shigeyuki (no LDP faction affiliation) has been appointed to lead the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW). The two preceding administrations of Abe Shinzo and Suga Yoshihide were criticized for failing to effectively guide the MHLW, which resulted in delayed handling of the pandemic. Some are concerned about Kishida’s selections, wondering whether this team of first-time ministers will be able to effectively address the COVID-19 crisis.


Kishida appointed Yamagiwa Daishiro to the post of Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization, replacing Nishimura Yasutoshi, who assumed the position in spring 2020 around the time COVID-19 cases started to skyrocket. As economic revitalization minister, Yamagiwa will be responsible for the legislation that covers the declaration of states of emergency. Horiuchi Noriko, a third-time Diet member, will replace Kono Taro as vaccine czar.


On the evening of Oct. 4, Kishida told the press: “I instructed the three [coronavirus] ministers to offer the Japanese people a comprehensive vision for COVID-19 response efforts as soon as possible, including accelerating inoculations, offering effective treatments, and boosting testing capacity.”


“We will examine what has hindered the progress of the COVID-19 response measures in the past,” Kishida added. “We will also develop legislation for limiting people’s movements and securing hospital beds in case of emergency. Fundamental changes will be made to strengthen Japan’s crisis response, including response headquarters’ functionality.”


The post of health minister is traditionally given to someone with previous cabinet experience, like Kato Katsunobu and Tamura Norihisa. Both Kato and Tamura had substantial experience in social security and were reputed for having a detailed knowledge of the workings of health-and-labor policy implementation.


Some in the Liberal Democratic Party see the MHLW’s stance on COVID-19 countermeasures as reflecting the ministry’s reluctance to make sweeping changes, which it claims will undermine consistency with past policies and the law. This stance made it difficult for both Abe and Suga to carry out COVID-19 countermeasures.


The Suga administration assigned someone other than the MHLW minister to serve as a vaccine minister so that COVID-19 response efforts could be led by the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei] instead of the MHLW. Goto, who has just been appointed to take the reins of the ministry, has been involved in LDP COVID-19 countermeasures discussions. Goto is originally from the Finance Ministry and has a deep understanding of how Kasumigaseki bureaucrats think. His appointment clearly shows that Kishida intends to break down the wall between the ministry and the Kantei.


Furthermore, none of Kishida’s executive secretaries hail from the MHLW. Two are from the Ministry of Finance, one of them being Unami Hirotaka, who worked on the MHLW budget for many years at the MOF Budget Bureau. Reportedly, Kishida strongly pushed for Unami’s appointment.


In addition to working with the central government, the new COVID-19 ministers must tackle the difficult job of coordinating with local municipalities and regional medical institutions. Prefectural governments oversee medical care. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, the special wards oversee the public health centers in their jurisdiction. Currently, the central government sets the overall vision for the COVID-19 response, and the local governments formulate specific plans to implement that vision.


Some 80% of health institutions in Japan are private, and their decisions are not totally under the control of the central government. Kishida as well as the three new ministers are not experienced in negotiating with local and private counterparts and navigating the difficulties that arise.


Oct. 1 saw the end of the state of emergency. Campaigning for the Lower House election will start on Oct. 19, and the election will be held on Oct. 31. It will be difficult for the new ministers to revise laws and plan budget allocation before the election. If the government wants to strengthen measures to limit people’s movements [in the event of an emergency]. it will have to wait until next January, when the ordinary Diet session convenes, to revise current legislation.


A sixth wave of COVID-19 is expected this winter. The new ministers must develop a system that boosts temporary medical facilities and supports home visits to those recuperating at home. If there is a need for stronger measures, the administration should discuss revisions to the related laws and a budget plan at the same time as the election campaigning. The new COVID ministers will not have the luxury of a warm-up period. Even though they are new to serving on a cabinet, they will be required to produce results quickly.

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