LDP Trips self up on Coronavirus Law Revisions

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, right, and Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary general of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, are seen in the Diet building on Thursday.

The Liberal Democratic Party and the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan agreed Thursday on draft legal revisions aiming to strengthen measures against the coronavirus, after the ruling LDP accepted a drastic reduction of penalties, which had been the main focus of attention, in order to swiftly put revisions of the related laws into effect.

■ Repeated talks

“We will do our best to resolve concerns among the public amid the coronavirus pandemic and respond to the situation as quickly as possible. It’s important to speedily pass necessary legislation,” Hiroshi Moriyama, chairperson of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee, said on Thursday. He made the remark to stress the importance of the fact that discussions of the revisions had finally been settled.

The changes made to draft revisions of the Infectious Diseases Law and the special measures law to cope with new strains of influenza include the removal of imprisonment for COVID-19 patients who refuse to be hospitalized, and the change from criminal fines to administrative fines as well as a reduction of the amount of fines.

Moriyama had three rounds of talks on the day with Jun Azumi, his counterpart at the CDPJ. Then, at a meeting of LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai and CDPJ Secretary General Tetsuro Fukuyama, the two parties officially agreed to exclude criminal penalties from the revision of the Infectious Diseases Law and to reduce the amount of fines in the revision of the special measures law.

After the meeting, Fukuyama indicated that his party will support the draft revisions, saying, “We assumed a certain responsibility in the revisions.”

■ ‘Ginza at night’

The government hurriedly began working on the revisions amid the resurgence of the coronavirus. Initially, the draft revision of the Infectious Diseases Law stated that a prison term of up to one year or a criminal fine of up to ¥1 million would be imposed on COVID-19 patients who do not comply with hospitalization orders or who leave without permission after being hospitalized.

CDPJ leader Yukio Edano said that “a prison term is totally unacceptable,” and the party demanded that imprisonment be excluded from the revision. The government and the ruling parties tried to reach an agreement by excluding imprisonment and reducing the top amount of a criminal fine to ¥500,000.

However, some lawmakers in the opposition parties voiced criticism of including criminal penalties in the revision, as it would place more burdens on those working on the front lines.

When it became known that ruling party lawmakers had stayed late at a luxury club in Tokyo’s Ginza district during the state of emergency, the tide turned.

The CDPJ stepped up its attack, with one lawmaker saying, “If entities are fined or penalized, Diet members who go to such places should be fined or penalized as well.”

No agreement was reached in discussions among chief board members of the ruling and opposition parties of House of Representatives Cabinet Committee and Health, Labor and Welfare Committee, held on Tuesday and Wednesday. The discussions were then continued in a meeting of chairpersons of the parties’ Diet affairs committees.

■ New bargaining chip

In addition, the ruling parties were hit by an arrow from an unexpected direction.

On Wednesday, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry released on its website the minutes of a meeting of the infectious diseases subcommittee of the Health Sciences Council, held on Jan. 15.

The minutes showed that some members attending the meeting questioned the effectiveness of criminal penalties, with comments such as, “It’s unclear why an administrative fine would be insufficient.”

On Thursday morning, Azumi received an analysis report on the minutes, saying that three members were clearly in favor of criminal penalties and eight indicated opposition to them. Azumi decided that this could be used as a bargaining chip.

In a meeting of opposition parties’ Diet affairs committee chairs immediately afterward, Azumi confirmed a policy of blocking Diet debate on the draft revisions unless criminal penalties were removed.

“Unless criminal penalties are excluded from the revisions, we’ll thoroughly argue about the Diet deliberation schedule,” he said.

Moriyama planned to start Diet deliberations on the draft revisions on Friday and enact them on Feb. 3. However, after carefully reading the minutes himself, he decided there was no alternative to accepting the opposition parties’ demands.

The release of the minutes came with the worst possible timing for the ruling parties. “The health ministry is so sloppy,” one senior LDP lawmaker said.

“As Diet committee chair of the ruling party, I feel it is deeply regrettable that we had to change the draft revisions,” Moriyama said, after the ruling parties and the government had to make a concession due to their own blunders.