Suga Wobbles on When to Lift of State of Emergency

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, right, announces the lifting of the state of emergency in six prefectures at the Prime Minister’s Office on Friday alongside Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura, center, and Shigeru Omi, who heads the government subcommittee on coronavirus measures.

Despite the government’s decision to lift the state of emergency early for six prefectures mainly in the Kansai and Chukyo regions, it cannot be said that the coronavirus pandemic has been successfully contained.

The situation remains unpredictable, making it uncertain whether Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be able to achieve his goal of pursuing infection countermeasures and economic recovery in tandem.

Suga announced on Friday that the state of emergency would be lifted in the six prefectures at the end of February. The state of emergency for Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures in the metropolitan area remains in place as scheduled through March 7.

From early on, Suga has been trying to find an exit strategy for the state of emergency.

After the government decided to extend the emergency period on Feb. 2 in Tokyo and nine other prefectures, the infection situations in Aichi, Gifu, Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures began to ease, which made Suga consider lifting the state of emergency early.

Spike in suicides

Suga had become alarmed that the number of people driven to suicide due to the worsening economy would increase if the state of emergency wasn’t lifted early. Preliminary figures for suicides nationwide last year stood at 20,919, marking the first increase in 11 years.

Suga in fact sought to lift the state of emergency in Aichi and Gifu prefectures ahead of the others to coincide with the Feb. 13 implementation of a special measures law to cope with new strains of influenza.

However, delay in securing beds at medical institutions threw off the plans. Although the state of emergency resulted in a decrease in the number of newly infected people, the utilization rate of hospital beds remained at a high level. As a result, Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura and Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura, who had leaned toward an early lifting of the state of emergency, decided against requesting the central government to do so.

As such, just days before Feb. 13, Suga changed his mind and gave up on an early lifting of the state of emergency. Suga “changed overnight,” a Cabinet member told insiders.

Suga’s decision to lift the state of emergency in six prefectures ahead of schedule came about largely because their governors submitted requests for such an action.

Rumblings of skepticism

The latest move also drew rumblings of skepticism within the central government, with a senior official in the Cabinet Secretariat saying, “What’s the point in lifting the state of emergency only one week early?”

At a meeting of relevant ministers prior to the decision, Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Norihisa Tamura made the case for waiting, saying, “We should keep [the state of emergency] in place for one more week through the set deadline and reduce the number of infection cases as much as possible.”

There is also no guarantee that an early lifting would enable the government to get back on the path toward Suga’s stated aim of balancing the fight against the coronavirus and restarting the economy.

Suga had planned to hold a press conference on Friday, when he was to have announced his intention to lift the state of emergency in Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures on March 7 as scheduled.

However, he faced strong opposition from the head of the government subcommittee on coronavirus measures, Shigeru Omi, who said it would result in people letting down their guard against the coronavirus.

Although the press conference was canceled, Suga fielded questions from reporters gathered around him but stopped short of announcing that the state of emergency would be lifted in the metropolitan area as scheduled.

Many experts remain deeply concerned about another surge in infections if economic activities are resumed. Suga also did not touch on the resumption of the government’s Go To Travel tourism campaign, which has been suspended nationwide.