On Tuesday, 2 February, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that he would extend the state of emergency scheduled to end on 7 February by one month, to 7 March. Although case numbers have fallen since the state of emergency was first declared in early January, the government remains concerned about the strain on the medical system imposed not only by overall case numbers but also by elevated numbers of severe cases.
The state of emergency will remain in effect in ten mainly urban prefectures – Suga lifted it in Tochigi prefecture – and the declaration will still focus on reducing business hours at high-risk facilities and encouraging telecommuting than calling for outright business suspensions. However, with the Diet expected to pass legislation that will enable the government to compel individuals and businesses to comply with the public health request as early as Wednesday, the administration may be able to levy fines for non-compliance later this month. (Although the government accepted milder, non-criminal punishments after negotiations with the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party [CDP].) In deciding whether to lift the state of emergency, the national government will coordinate with prefectural governments, which have articulated their own guidelines for relaxing controls. The state of emergency is likely to be lifted gradually, as happened during the first state of emergency in 2020.
However, while extending the state of emergency is broadly popular, Suga’s political struggles will continue. On Tuesday, the prime minister was forced to apologize for the behavior of senior ruling party lawmakers who had visited Tokyo nightclubs late at night, despite the state of emergency’s recommendations that individuals should avoid non-essential outings and eating and drinking establishments should close by 8pm. Three members of Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including the vice minister of education, and one member of the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito were found to have visited nightclubs in January. Komeito lawmaker Kiyohiko Toyama has resigned his parliamentary seat; the three LDP members have resigned their government and LDP leadership posts and left the LDP but have not resigned from the Diet. Their exit from the LDP is unlikely due to the uproar not only from opposition lawmakers and the media but also rank-and-file supporters of the ruling coalition. Suga in particular is vulnerable to charges that he is unable to control his own party even as he tries to contain the pandemic.
As embarrassing as this scandal is, Suga’s position is still ultimately dependent on his ability to tame the outbreak and launch the vaccine distribution process in a timely and efficient manner. To this end, the prime minister indicated Tuesday that vaccinations for frontline medical workers could begin as early as mid-February, sooner than initially announced, and that the elderly would begin receiving the vaccine in April. Separately, Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono, tasked with running the vaccine distribution program, announced Monday that the government would increase the amount of money it would distribute to local governments to cover vaccine distribution expenditures. Additionally, the Suga administration has signaled that it will try to provide more information to local officials about the timeline and other logistical details, as local governments, which will be responsible for managing distribution to their residents, have been dissatisfied with the information flow from Tokyo.