Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced after a meeting of his government’s Covid-19 response headquarters on Saturday, 21 November that, as expected, his government would suspend or scale back the “Go To” programs for subsidizing domestic travel and dining out. However advisable, Suga’s u-turn exposes him to stronger political attacks than he has faced thus far, which, depending on how severe the impact of Japan’s third wave is, could constrain his ability to call a snap election in early 2021 or even complicate a bid for a new leadership term in September 2021.
It is too soon to determine how severe a political challenge Japan’s third wave will be for Suga, but his handling of the outbreak has drawn unfavorable comparisons to former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of the first and second waves. Abe was criticized for being too slow to react to rising case numbers and, during the second wave, for failing to communicate with the public. The result was disapproval of his crisis management and a sustained fall in his approval ratings from which he was unable to recover before resigning due to ill health. Suga too has been criticized for limiting his press availability and appearing to wait too long to adjust his policies in response to a surge of infections. Perhaps to an even greater extent than Abe, Suga has prioritized the need for economic revitalization over infection control, resulting in his administration’s reluctance to suspend its major program for stimulating domestic demand. He was also criticized for waiting until after the start of three-day weekend to announce the change, meaning that the decision came too late to discourage domestic travel that could end up contributing to the further spread of Covid-19.
Suga’s position could also be weakened by confusion regarding his government’s new policies. While the government has indicated that it will withhold subsidies for new bookings to travel to prefectures facing the most severe outbreaks, it has not decided whether it will also withdraw subsidies from already booked travel or provide compensation to individuals who have to pay to cancel their trips. The government is similarly calling upon prefectural governors to stop issuing “Go To Eat” dining-out certificates, but it is unclear which prefectures will withdraw subsidies and when. The situation is further complicated by the involvement of prefectural governors, who have been offering their own proposals and replies to the prime minister’s decision.
It is unclear how much of a role the “Go To” programs have played in the third wave, and therefore it is unknown whether this step will contain the latest outbreak and safeguard the medical system. Experts have warned that the health care system could be increasingly overwhelmed in some prefectures. There may not be much desire among the government or the public for a new state of emergency that enables soft lockdowns in more severely affected areas, but the danger for Suga is that, like Abe, he is backed into declaring a state of emergency to stave off the collapse of the medical system. This week will therefore be a critical test to see whether the third wave peaks or, if not, whether Suga can articulate a strategy and combat the perception that his government is entirely reactive.