Prime Minister’s Office shows ‘lack of coordination’ on COVID policy for entrance exams

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second from right, and education minister Shinsuke Suematsu, right, are seen in a meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office.

The education ministry on Monday withdrew its coronavirus guidelines for university entrance examinations three days after announcing them.

The guidelines stated that those who had been in close contact with people infected with the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus would not be allowed to take the exam even if they were asymptomatic.

This abrupt reversal of pandemic measures by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida echoed an earlier case in which the government made and then withdrew a request that airlines suspend new bookings for international flights.

Kishida told reporters on Monday that he had taken the initiative to change course. “Yesterday, I instructed the education minister to consider measures to secure as many opportunities as possible to take the examinations, including taking the examinations in a separate room,” Kishida said.

According to government sources, Kishida was informed of the guidelines of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry on Sunday.

Kishida became increasingly wary of media coverage criticizing the education ministry’s initial guidelines. He called on the education minister, Shinsuke Suematsu, to take new measures to address growing concern among people taking the exam.

Prior to announcing the guidelines, the ministry had a plan to allow people, who had been in close contact with those infected with the omicron variant but who were themselves asymptomatic, to take the exam in a separate room after meeting conditions such as showing proof of negative test result.

However, the education ministry later decided that it should follow the request of the health ministry, which calls for those who have been in close contact to go through a strict 14-day waiting period in accommodation facilities. On Friday, the education ministry compiled the guidelines and notified prefectural governments, stating that people who had come into close contact with those infected with the omicron variant would not be allowed to take the exams.

The sources said that neither Kishida nor Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno were consulted in advance by the education ministry regarding the guidelines. “The education ministry did not pay enough attention to the life-altering importance of the exam,” a source close to the prime minister said.

There are voices criticizing the sudden change of policy inside the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. “The lack of coordination by the Prime Minister’s Office was exposed once again,” a senior LDP member said.

In the previous case, the transport ministry on Nov. 29 requested that airlines suspend new bookings for international flights arriving in Japan, but withdrew the request three days later when it was reported that Japanese expatriates were worried that they would be unable to return home.

“The prime minister may think he is demonstrating his ability to listen again, but if the situation where government policy is immediately overturned continues any longer, the credibility of the entire Cabinet will be damaged,” a former Cabinet minister in the LDP said.

“If I need to take the exam on a different day, it will affect my plans to take exams for other universities and departments,” said a 19-year-old who is studying for the exam of a private university in Tokyo after failing to make the cut last year.

“I’m grateful to be able to take it as scheduled, even in a separate room,” he said.