Photo/Illutration The expert panel to review the government's responses to the COVID-19 pandemic holds its first meeting in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on May 11. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced on June 15 a plan to set up a new agency directly under his supervision to respond to future public health crises due to infectious diseases.

When an infectious disease outbreak occurs, additional officials will be deployed from the health ministry and other relevant government bodies to the new agency, tentatively dubbed “Cabinet infectious disease crisis management agency.”

The agency will be tasked to deal with the situation under the direct command of the prime minister.

We share the recognition that a powerful and effective central command is crucial for tackling outbreaks of unknown infectious diseases.

We also agree with the argument that such a challenge requires integrated policy responses under strong political leadership that are not shackled by the highly compartmentalized bureaucratic structure.

To ensure that the new system will work, however, it is crucial for the government to revisit what transpired during the COVID-19 pandemic and review its own responses to the crisis to identify issues that need to be addressed and glean and share lessons.

In his policy speech at the Diet delivered last autumn, Kishida said he would “thoroughly analyze how the government has dealt with (the pandemic) and identify the bottlenecks in its crisis management.”

But the launch of an expert panel for this mission was delayed to May and it held only five meetings before its work was finished.

The panel produced a perfunctory 21-page report, published on June 15, which only listed issues that had already been pointed out. It proposed the establishment of a new entity authorized to command the policy efforts to deal with outbreaks, an idea Kishida started proposing last year, apparently in line with a scenario scripted by the government.

The response review panel interviewed outside experts involved in the government’s handling of the public health crisis, such as leaders of medical and business organizations as well as Shigeru Omi, the chairman of the expert panel advising the government on the pandemic.

However, the panel did not question any top government policymakers such as the prime minister and Cabinet members or bureaucrats responsible for implementing related policy decisions.

Thus, it cannot be claimed that the review panel made a thorough examination of the government’s decisions and actions in response to the pandemic. Obviously, its job was to allow the prime minister to boast that he had delivered on his promise prior to the Upper House election in July.

The panel’s report nevertheless conceded that there are issues that had not been addressed and called on the government to undertake a “multifaceted” review of its handling of the crisis and promote proper policies.

Both the government and the Diet should be keenly aware that they are responsible for responding to the panel’s recommendations.

The postmortem should also cover the Kishida administration’s own decisions and actions.

Despite Kishida’s repeated calls for moving up the schedule for the third vaccine shots, little progress has been made.

The need to enhance the nation’s testing capabilities has yet to be met even though it has been on the policy agenda since the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

What kind of communication has been going on between the prime minister’s office and the health ministry? Why do these problems still remain unsolved two years since the first wave of COVID-19 cases hit the nation?

Kishida should have a sense of urgency about these failures as his own problems.

While political leadership is important for tackling outbreaks, the government should not be allowed to intervene in strict medical procedures for approving therapies and vaccines.

It should not be forgotten that policy decisions made by the prime minister or his close aides without consulting experts and advisers could pose risks, as shown by the Abe administration’s decision on nationwide school closures and to deliver cloth masks to all the people.

In a June 15 news conference, Kishida also announced his intention to integrate the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and the National Center for Global Health and Medicine.

While details of the merged entity have yet to be unveiled, it is vital to ensure that the expert organization will operate in an objective and neutral manner and will be capable of analyzing and proposing policies from an independent standpoint.

The new body should pursue broad cooperation with universities and other research institutions for developing experts and raising the levels of research.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 17