Central, local govts must strengthen cooperation to deal with emergencies

Insufficient coordination between the central and local governments has been noticeable amid the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. A system must be put in place to ensure close cooperation in the event of a serious crisis.

The 33rd Local Government System Research Council, an advisory body to the prime minister, has begun discussions. The main topic is the relationship between the central and local governments, which has surfaced as an issue amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government plans to consider the revision of related laws based on the council’s report.

At the beginning of the outbreak of infections, there were frequent conflicts of opinion between the central government and prefectural governors over declaring a state of emergency and restricting activities. The central government repeatedly asked for hospital beds to be secured and for the expansion of PCR testing, but local governments were slow to act.

Although the central and local governments struggled to deal with the spread of an unprecedented infectious disease, it is undeniable that the turmoil was exacerbated by indecisive administrations. It is important to take this opportunity to properly review the relationship between the central and local governments.

Many have argued that inadequate legislation has been a factor in the confusion.

The law on special measures for new types of influenza, which has served as part of the foundation for COVID-19 measures, gives prefectural governments strong authority to ask restaurants and bars to suspend operations and take other steps.

Although the central government can provide overall coordination and issue instructions, the division of roles is unclear, and necessary measures have lagged behind.

What kind of system is desirable for many administrative bodies, including the central government, prefectures and municipalities, to cooperate in dealing with the situation? Effective plans need to be devised based on the current state of administrative activities.

It is also essential to reconsider the role of public health centers, which play a key part in infectious disease mitigation.

In addition to prefectures, government-designated large cities, core cities and Tokyo’s 23 wards are allowed to set up public health centers, and governors have limited authority over them. They are also closely linked to the work of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, and it has been argued that the chain of command is unclear.

Many tasks, such as identifying people who test positive for COVID-19 and those in close contact with them, and coordinating hospitalization, have been concentrated at public health centers. In urban areas, many centers have become dysfunctional.

The government should take the lead in resolving the problems faced by public health centers, such as insufficient staffing for their workload. To strengthen the functions of health centers, drastic organizational changes may also need to be considered.

In the wake of simultaneous revisions of laws related to decentralization implemented in 2000, the relationship between the central government and local governments was shifted from “hierarchical and supervisor-subordinate” to “equal and cooperative.”

However, some observers believe the excessive emphasis on equal relationships may have made it impossible for the central government to exercise leadership in times of emergency, when wide-ranging, rapid responses are needed.

Clear guidelines must be presented on how the central and local governments should cooperate with each other as required by the times.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 8, 2022.