Lax handling of huge public funds for antivirus measures needs review

A huge amount of public funds has been spent to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic. In some cases, sloppy use of the funds has brought paltry results. The central government should examine the actual circumstances and make use of the results for the future.

The Board of Audit has released its report on the final accounts of expenditures and revenues for fiscal 2020. This time the board focused on how the budget for the coronavirus control measures was spent and carried out an intensive investigation.

The report called for improvements in the smartphone app COCOA (COVID-19 Contact-Confirming Application), which notifies users about possible contact with people infected with the virus, noting that tests were not properly conducted, leading to glitches.

The system was not appropriately managed mainly due to a lack of expertise on the part of the official in charge of the app, and system glitches were left unaddressed for several months. The government must take measures to prevent a recurrence, such as preparing manuals for dealing with possible problems.

In the “Go To Travel” campaign to help the tourist industry, the government had to cover ¥115.7 billion in cancellation fees for travel and other matters due to the suspension of the campaign project.

According to the report, the government was not aware if those funds were distributed, not only to accommodation facilities, but also to food ingredient suppliers and other related businesses that incurred losses.

In another project, to provide benefits to small and midsize businesses to help them maintain their operations, ¥66.8 billion was spent in total to outsource the project’s own administrative work. The work was recommissioned through up to nine levels of outsourcing from a contractor to subcontractors and sub-subcontractors for administrative procedures. In the end, 96% of the ¥66.8 billion went to such subcontractors. However, there is no record of any discussion of whether such actions were really necessary.

It must be said that officials in charge of any projects lacked awareness of their responsibility to carefully see the projects through to the end.

In the measures against the coronavirus, some projects cannot escape criticism as being wastes of public funds.

Of 287 million cloth masks procured by the government for distribution to households and elsewhere, 82 million masks, worth ¥11.5 billion, remained in storage. The storage fees at warehouses came to ¥600 million from August last year to March this year alone.

Some cloth masks were found to be of inferior quality, forcing local governments to deal with the problem.

The report also left open the question of how each ministry and agency should compile its budget. According to the board, ¥22.8 trillion, or one-third, of the total ¥65.4 trillion budgeted for measures against the coronavirus for fiscal 2019 to 2020 went unspent, with most of that carried over to the next fiscal year.

In the face of an unknown infectious disease, ministries and agencies may have secured larger budgets. However, in the name of measures against the coronavirus, they seem to have appropriated funds without fully considering the necessity of specific measures.

The report will be used to examine accounts at the Diet. The Diet as well as the government needs to reexamine the appropriateness of the budgeting process at the House of Councillors’ Committee on Audit and other meetings and thoroughly explain their findings to the public.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 10, 2021.