Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, center, on Nov. 21 addresses top officials responsible for measures to tackle the public health crisis. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

The government decided Nov. 21 to scale down “Go To” state subsidy programs aimed at propping up the hospitality industry pummeled by the new coronavirus pandemic after a meeting of top officials responsible for measures to tackle the public health crisis.

It took the decision in response to a set of proposals by a panel of economic and infectious disease experts on steps to deal with the issue.

The government clearly needs to work closely with local authorities to decide changes that must be made swiftly to stem the rapid expansion of infections.

Over the past 10 days or so, many Japanese have felt anxiety and frustration over alarming differences in how medical experts and government policymakers perceive the gravity of the COVID-19 situation.

Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, on Nov. 11 sounded the alarm about the advent of “a third wave,” while Shigeru Omi, the health expert heading the government panel of experts dealing with the pandemic, warned that the situation is serious.

Echoing the views of these experts, a recent Asahi Shimbun editorial noted that the nation may be “on the cusp of explosive growth” in COVID-19 cases and argued for a comprehensive review of the tax-financed campaign to encourage people to travel and eat out with others.

But the Suga administration, which places a higher policy priority on maintaining social and economic activities, only offered a timid and half-hearted response to the chorus of warnings.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato declared that the administration would continue promoting the campaign so strongly championed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who enjoined people to enjoy eating out with others quietly while wearing masks.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, the state minister of economic revitalization who is also in charge of Japan’s response to the pandemic, sounded almost defiant when he stated, “It is up to the people to decide whether they take advantage of the programs.”

Most people understand the importance of shoring up the enfeebled economy. Still, the Suga administration’s failure to offer flexible policy alternatives in response to the fluid situation, coupled with its obstinate adherence to the campaign--as if calling it off was a nonstarter--have augmented public distrust of the leadership.

At the outset of enumerating new proposals, announced on Nov. 20, the expert panel called on the government to “send out a message that can touch the hearts of people instead of simply relying on efforts by individuals.”

The government has come under repeated criticism for failingly to communicate with the public properly since Shinzo Abe, Suga’s predecessor, was in power. Under Suga, the government’s performance in this respect shows no signs of improvement.

The problem seems to have been exacerbated by the Suga administration’s seemingly incurable tendency to only offer brusque and equivocal answers to questions.

The expert panel’s proposal includes an array of measures, ranging from asking bars and restaurants to shorten their business hours to urging people to refrain from traveling to areas where COVID-19 cases are surging.

But the effectiveness of these measures is unknown in a situation where the virus is already in community transmission. The government’s policy efforts must remain focused on maintaining and enhancing the nation’s systems and capabilities to provide medical care to patients.

In some areas, a shortage of health care workers is making it difficult for medical institutions to accept patients even when empty beds are available.

Some experts are warning that it will become harder to secure sufficient facilities to take care of patients in pace with the speed of new infections.

It is also worrisome that a growing number of cluster infections have occurred in hospitals and welfare facilities.

With the cold and dry season on the nation's doorstep, it may be necessary to change the strategy for grappling with this formidable challenge.

It is clearly vital to establish an effective system to ensure tests are done on a wide range of people who may have caught the virus to quickly ascertain who is infected.

The government must spare no policy effort to help establish such a system.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 22