By NATSUKI OKAMURA/ Staff Writer
January 19, 2021 at 18:16 JST
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga gives a policy speech in the Upper House on the opening day of the ordinary Diet session on Jan. 18. (Koichi Ueda)
Fines of up to 500,000 yen ($4,800) against noncompliant companies and criminal penalties for defiant patients are the main features of revision bills that are heading to the Diet to fight the novel coronavirus.
Lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, Komeito, on Jan. 18 gave the nod to the government bills, which would strengthen restrictions on private rights.
The legislation will be submitted to the Diet after gaining Cabinet approval this week.
In his policy speech the same day in the Diet, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the bills will enhance the effectiveness of two existing laws: the special measures law to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Infectious Disease Law.
The government seeks to enact the amended laws in early February to give authorities more power to ensure businesses and infected patients cooperate in efforts to bring the spreading virus under control.
The existing laws do not contain any penalties for refusals to cooperate with requests for cooperation.
The revision of the special measures law centers on introducing a maximum administrative penalty of 500,000 yen against businesses that do not comply with orders to close or shorten operating hours under a state of emergency issued by the central government.
The revision would also allow prefectural governors to exercise the authority to effectively order restaurants and other establishments to change their operating hours.
Governors would be able to set a period up to six months for priority measures in their jurisdictions to defeat the virus even before the central government issues a state of emergency there. If business operators do not follow governors’ orders during the designated period, they would be required to pay a fine up to 300,000 yen.
In addition, authorities would be able to inspect such businesses or ask for reports before issuing the orders. If they refuse, they would be slapped with a fine of 200,000 yen.
The revision bill also calls for providing relief funds and other necessary assistance to businesses. The original draft bill did not explicitly spell out these steps, but they became clearer after pressure from the opposition bloc. Assistance to health care workers will be included.
The amendment of the Infectious Disease Law would include a provision to criminally punish infected individuals if they reject instructions to be hospitalized. They could be sentenced to a one-year prison term or receive a maximum fine of 1 million yen.
If infected individuals decline to cooperate with public health officials on identifying the routes of transmission without reasonable grounds, they could be fined up to 500,000 yen.
But the proposed imposition of criminal penalties is drawing fire from experts.
They said the step could end up jeopardizing public health officials’ efforts to contain the disease because many people may decide not to be tested for the virus in fear of the criminal penalties and discrimination if the results are positive.
Legal scholars and assembly members at the local level raised doubts about the constitutionality of the revision bill due in part to the absence of a setup to ensure local authorities exercise their expanded authority appropriately.
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