OSAKA – Late last month, the government announced it would reorganize a panel of experts that had been providing advice since mid-February on how to respond to the novel coronavirus.
The old panel had no legal authority, and there were concerns among some of its members, as well as the government, about the public blaming it for the way the government had responded to the virus pandemic. The new subcommittee seeks to remedy that.
What is the role of the new group and to whom is it responsible?
The subcommittee has a number of different roles, including reviewing current virus measures and medical testing.
At its first meeting, on July 6, it discussed ways to increase the number of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
Members called for thorough PCR testing of those showing signs of novel coronavirus infection or judged to be at high risk due to their proximity to those known to have been infected. For individuals deemed low risk, the subcommittee recommended more simple, low-cost testing. But it also said national consensus was necessary on how to test those with a low risk of infection, because of concerns about such tests providing inaccurate results.
Once a vaccine is developed, the subcommittee will also discuss priority immunizations. The debate could possibly include recommendations on which groups, such as medical workers, should be first in line to receive any new vaccination.
The subcommittee has been placed under the authority of a larger government novel coronavirus advisory council, which is responsible to the Cabinet Secretariat — and thus, ultimately, the Prime Minister — rather than the Health Ministry.
This has led to some concerns that the subcommittee might provide advice and recommendations that are riskier but also more politically acceptable than advice based on scientific caution alone.
Why did the government decide on a new subcommittee?
Last month, one of the former committee members, Takaji Wakita, who heads the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and served as the panel’s chairman, expressed concern the panel had created a public impression that it was formulating virus policies that were hurting the economy.
He made the remark in response to some critics, within the government and among some sectors of the public, about the way the panel was making recommendations, particularly the idea that face-to-face contact should be reduced by 80 percent.
Economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said the purpose of the change was to broaden the kinds of advice the government was receiving about dealing with the virus. According to Nishimura, the purpose was to access not just medical advice, or advice based on the current and short-term projected path of the coronavirus, but also advice from nonmedical experts that considered ways to deal with the virus, and its impact on society, over the longer term.
Nishimura has emphasized that the virus crisis has entered a new phase, in which the government needs to move toward dealing with the pandemic so there is no large second wave of infections while increasing economic activities in stages, and says the new subcommittee consists of those who will provide advice on how to do both.
Who are its members?
There is some continuity with the old panel, and eight out of the original 12 panel members remain on the new subcommittee.
Four members who were basic medical researchers have been replaced by those who belong to clinics.
However, the subcommittee is now chaired by Shigeru Omi, president of the Japan Community Health Care Organization.
Omi is a former regional director at the World Health Organization and chaired the previous subcommittee. He has been a familiar media presence these past few months, appearing at press conferences with both Nishimura and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Serving underneath Omi is Wakita.
The 18-member subcommittee includes not only medical experts but also a lawyer, a senior representative of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, an official from the Rengo trade union, two economists and the head of the ANA Strategic Research Institute.
The governor of Tottori Prefecture was also asked to join the subcommittee. Back in April, Shinji Hirai was the first governor to announce drive-through coronavirus testing at local health centers and hospitals, and the new subcommittee will look at possible ways to institute that on a much larger scale.
What will be discussed and suggested next?
The committee will continue to monitor the coronavirus situation while discussing the possibility of relaxing, in stages, various controls after August.
Much of the advice ultimately given will depend on the rate of new infections.
Some members might propose things like more online appointments between medical experts and patients, saying that such measures would reduce the risk of cluster infections at health centers and, ultimately, be more time- and cost-efficient.
But medical experts and others may worry about misdiagnoses and possible lawsuits filed by online patients or their families, especially from those who are older or not adept at using the technology.
One of the subcommittee members is Keiichiro Kobayashi, research director at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and a visiting economics professor at Keio University. Kobayashi was a principal co-author of an April report, with contributions by 44 supporting authors, that offered a number of recommendations for dealing with the virus.
These included having the government lease hotels and other lodgings throughout the country and convert them into temporary quarantine stations for those who test positive but have no symptoms or are only mildly ill.
The recommendation notes this policy has the added benefit of financially supporting the tourist industry.
Kobayashi’s group also called for economic relief to small businesses hit hard by the virus, but added that it should be tied to a longer-term policy that presses inefficient businesses to close.
The Kobayashi group’s most controversial proposal, which 15 of the 44 supporting authors did not endorse, was a call for the government to pledge up to ¥100 trillion in public funds to restore confidence in the stock market and financial system.
But use of more public funds to prevent a collapse in Japan’s financial system due to a virus-induced economic slump is another issue likely to receive attention by the subcommittee.