Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's administration is readying legislation to punish those refusing to comply with government-mandated COVID-19 measures, as Japan on Friday marked one year since the first case of coronavirus infection was confirmed in the country.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare held a meeting the same day to discuss a proposed revision to the infectious disease law making it possible to impose fines or even prison sentences on people who test positive for the coronavirus but refuse to be hospitalized or cooperate with contact tracing efforts.
Japan has been struggling with a third wave of COVID-19 cases since November, reporting a nationwide daily record of more than 7,800 cases on Jan. 8. The country has logged over 300,000 cases of infections and over 4,000 deaths.
Health experts attending the meeting largely approved of the plan but warned the government to be circumspect in doling out punishment, with some expressing doubts about its effectiveness in curbing infections. The idea has also faced concerns it may infringe too much on personal freedoms.
Atsuko Tanaka, an official with the Tokyo metropolitan government's Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, said deciding who should be penalized could actually increase the workload on health workers and asked for consideration to be given to such concerns.
Under the proposed revision, which the Suga administration has floated to ruling and opposition parties before submitting it in the regular Diet session starting next week, those refusing to be hospitalized would face a maximum fine of 1 million yen ($9,600) or a prison sentence of up to one year.
People refusing to answer or giving false information to health authorities seeking to trace infection routes could be hit with a maximum fine of 500,000 yen or prison time of up to six months.
On Friday, Japan confirmed over 7,100 new cases of infections, compared with around 6,600 the previous day, and surpassed 7,000 cases for the first time since Jan. 9.
A state of emergency, under which people are urged to refrain from going outside unnecessarily and restaurants asked to shorten opening hours, took effect in the Tokyo metropolitan area last week and was expanded to other prefectures this week.
Prefectures not under the state of emergency, which currently covers 11 of the country's 47 prefectures, have also continued their efforts to contain a recent rise in infections.
Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, on Friday declared its own state of emergency, which is set to take effect between Monday and Feb. 7, and requested that people refrain from making nonessential outings.
The Hiroshima prefectural government in western Japan said Friday it is considering conducting free coronavirus testing of up to 800,000 people in what would be the largest such testing campaign in the country.
On the same day, Tokyo, which has recorded the most infections since the start of the pandemic, logged 2,001 new cases, bringing the cumulative total to 82,069.
Hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are quickly filling up, partly because many medical institutions are reluctant to admit infected patients out of fear of exposing their facility to the virus.
Under the proposed revision, language saying the government and prefectural governors can "request" that hospitals free up more beds would be changed to say they can "recommend" such a move, with the ability to name those that do not cooperate.
The government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said at a press conference Friday it was "a matter of course" that such emergency steps be discussed before they become necessary.
The Suga administration is also eyeing a revision to the special measures law on the coronavirus that would enable the government to fine businesses that fail to comply with its requests to shorten their operating hours or temporarily close.
The government plans to subject such businesses in prefectures under a state of emergency to a fine of up to 500,000 yen, while those in places where "preventative measures" are being implemented would face a maximum fine of 300,000 yen, according to sources close to the matter.
Opposition lawmakers have voiced concern that punishing businesses in prefectures where a state of emergency has yet to be declared could be a step too far.
"It's a gray zone of sorts. There are issues concerning personal freedoms," Yuichiro Tamaki, head of the Democratic Party for the People, said Thursday.