Omi: Govt must Explain if Expert Opinion not Followed

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shigeru Omi speaks during a recent interview.

Leaders and intellectuals share their thoughts on political issues Japan will tackle this year in the Outlook 2021 series. In this fourth installment, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed Shigeru Omi, the head of the government’s novel coronavirus task force, about how the current winter surge of coronavirus infections is stretching the nation’s medical system to the brink. The following is excerpted from the interview.

People have been under strain since the government first declared a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic back in April last year, and the momentum to return to normal life has been building throughout the nation.

The public is fed up with the strict and seemingly never-ending countermeasures implemented, and the failure of the central and local governments to message effectively has led us to the current surge in infections.

In any case, it’s imperative to put out the fire quickly.

At the time of the state of emergency last spring, we didn’t know what steps would be effective in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. We did everything we could to manage the crisis. There may have been some aspects that were unproductive, but at least we now know the nature of the virus.

In the “five situations” where the risk of infection is highest, such as social gatherings, it’s vital to take precautions particularly when eating and drinking is involved. All of the “key points” directly linked to infection prevention must be hit.

As specialists, we are in a position to propose measures that we would like the government to adopt and, as such, there are times when our opinions clash with the government.

In the case of the Go To Travel campaign, we stated that it should be halted once Stage 3, the second-most serious of the four-tier evaluation of the pandemic situation, was reached.

I’m sure the government understood our thinking, but probably worried about the damage a halt would have on the economy. Also, it could be difficult to coordinate with the prefectural governors.

When the central and Tokyo metropolitan governments called for the elderly and those with preexisting conditions to refrain from traveling to or from the capital, many specialists raised their eyebrows because asymptomatic young people are more likely to spread the virus.

I sensed the Suga administration’s determination when it went beyond our recommendations and halted the travel campaign nationwide for the year-end and New Year holiday period.

Gain understanding

People’s efforts alone cannot halt the spread of infections. If you only request that a business owner shorten their business hours, they will say such a request is going too far and will put them out of business.

A sense of unity is necessary when trying to gain the cooperation of businesses that are struggling, or with people who have lost their jobs.

It’s important that the central and local governments clearly indicate directives to those they are asking cooperation from. That’s the role of politicians.

Japan is not adept at communicating risk. Experts often make proposals in technical terms, and the politicians make the decisions. The viewpoints of the government and experts don’t always align. At those times, it’s necessary to explain in easy-to-understand terms to a baffled public why the specialists’ recommendations were not adopted.

In the case of the coronavirus countermeasures, the government has had difficulty conveying its aims to the public.

Speed up testing

A variant of the coronavirus has been confirmed in the nation, and what is most alarming about this variant is that it is up to 70% more transmissible. Further speeding up of PCR testing and genetic analysis is of the utmost importance.

Regarding border containment measures, we need to create a new basic strategy to put up road signs that tell people under what conditions a gate will be open or closed.

I want immediate public debate on the proposed revision of the special measures law to cope with new strains of influenza. Instead of clinging to preconceived notions, we must scrutinize the measures that have been taken so far and determine what else is needed. This means identifying why measures did not proceed quickly — was it a problem of legality, political leadership or implementation?

We must strive to minimize restrictions on individual rights, but it’s also necessary for measures to be potent. If the law is amended and penalties are set to accompany a business closure request or shorter operating hours, it must also include financial support for affected businesses. If not, the effectiveness of government action will never improve.

Shigeru Omi, 71

Head of the government’s novel coronavirus task force

Omi was born in 1949 in Tokyo. He graduated from Jichi Medical University. From 1999, he served as director for the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Region and was a leader in the battle against the SARS virus. In Japan, he was involved in the response to the new strain of influenza that broke out in 2009. Since 2014, he has served as president of the Japan Community Health Care Organization.