Create Effective Control Tower, Not Just New Name

It must be said that Japan’s infectious disease control measures were weak. Organizational change must lead to solving structural problems that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government has submitted a bill to revise the Cabinet Law to establish a new crisis management agency for infectious diseases in preparation for a new outbreak. The government aims to enact the revised law during the current Diet session and launch the new agency around the autumn of this year.

The agency will be established by reorganizing the Cabinet Secretariat’s office for COVID-19 control. It will be responsible for coordinating infectious disease measures spread across government ministries and agencies to lead the nation’s infectious disease control.

Currently, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is responsible for the development of the medical system and procurement of vaccines. The Foreign and Justice Ministries are in charge of border control measures, and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has coordinated with local governments, which take such actions as asking restaurants to shorten their business hours.

It is meaningless to create a new agency if it merely receives reports from the various ministries and agencies and coordinates them. It is important for the new agency to act as a control tower and through such government bodies flexibly implement appropriate measures.

A deputy chief cabinet secretary will be appointed as the chief of the new pandemic control agency. It is understandable that the Prime Minister’s Office will take the lead in implementing countermeasures against infectious diseases.

The agency will be regularly staffed with 38 full-time employees, with the number increased to 101 in the event of an emergency.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the administrative side called for the enhancement of medical treatment, but in reality, there were repeated shortages of hospital beds. The need for expanding testing and stockpiling medical supplies has been cited many times in the past, but the lack of preparations for such matters became clear.

The new agency must identify the causes of such situations and work to eliminate the various factors that hindered measures. It is important to strengthen preparedness at regular times in anticipation for a future outbreak of new viruses that are more infectious and harmful.

In addition to the new agency, the government also plans to establish a national institute for health crisis control to seek advice from a medical standpoint. The new institute will be established through the integration of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine. Related bills for the creation of the new institute will soon be submitted to the Diet.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has powerful authority, took the lead in infectious disease countermeasures based on vast amount of data it had accumulated. Following the methods taken by the CDC, Japan’s creation of the new organization aims to consolidate knowledge on infectious diseases.

It has been argued that the NIID has demonstrated a certain degree of strength in such matters as analyzing viruses but has lacked the ability to make proposals to reflect scientific findings in policy making.

It is essential for the government and experts to communicate on a daily basis to formulate effective countermeasures. In this regard, the new agency and the new institute are urged to cooperate well.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 19, 2023)