Japan Rushes to Cover Virus Gaps After Criticism of Lax Response

(Bloomberg) -- Japan strengthened its travel warning for China and moved to bar patients infected with the new coronavirus from entering the country, after criticism that its initial response to the deadly outbreak was too lax.

The government will also bring forward an order allowing compulsory hospitalization, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in parliament Friday. The country stepped up its travel warning for China to Level 2, meaning non-urgent trips should be canceled.

“This is an emergency with the outbreak spreading globally,” Abe told a cabinet-level meeting on the virus. “We need emergency policies to deal with it and we will step up all policies based on a strong sense of crisis.”

While the government moved quickly to begin evacuating hundreds of its citizens from Wuhan, the epicenter of what the World Health Organization has declared an emergency, it has not imposed strict quarantine on the returnees. Three have already returned to their homes in Japan, the government said.

Japan Rushes to Cover Virus Gaps After Criticism of Lax Response

By contrast, Australia plans to isolate its own evacuees from Wuhan for two weeks on Christmas Island, better known for its grim history as a detention center for would-be asylum seekers. The U.S. flew its citizens from the virus-stricken Chinese city to an isolated military base in California while South Korea has mandated quarantines and tests for its nationals evacuated on government-arranged charter flights.

The death toll from the virus in China rose to 213 Friday, with confirmed cases in the country at 9,821. Fourteen people have been confirmed infected with the virus in Japan, according to Health Minister Katsunobu Kato.

Two of the patients, a bus driver and a tour guide, are thought to have been infected by contact with tourists from Wuhan. Japan relies on China as its biggest trading partner and source of tourists -- with nearly 10 million visiting last year -- and has not restricted travelers from the hardest-hit areas.

“Their forecasting was too optimistic,” said Jun Azumi, an executive with the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party, referring to the Abe administration’s response. Given the rapid rise in the number of Chinese tourists, what happens in China “shouldn’t be treated as happening overseas,” he added.

Japan Rushes to Cover Virus Gaps After Criticism of Lax Response

A specified infectious disease order giving the government powers to force hospitalization will be implemented Feb. 1 instead of Feb. 7 as initially planned, Abe told parliament Friday. Virus patients will be barred from entering the country from the same date, he added.

MOFA’s website also recommends citizens already in China to consider safety measures such as returning to Japan temporarily.

The refusal of two people evacuated by Japan from Wuhan to undergo virus testing on their return has also focused attention on the country’s legal framework. Japanese law does not permit authorities to force people to be tested, Abe has said, citing human rights concerns.

Japan Rushes to Cover Virus Gaps After Criticism of Lax Response

The two evacuees, who had been allowed to return home, later agreed to the procedure and have undergone tests, Health Minister Kato said Friday.

“We need to introduce a system that allows for compulsory testing,” Azumi said. “This is a blind spot in the law.”

While social media was abuzz with criticism of Japan’s softly-softly approach, not all experts were negative.

“There’s no right answer,” said Brian McCloskey, the director of Global Health for Public Health England ahead of the WHO announcement. “At one end people will over-react. Some people will under-react. There’s no obvious answer at this stage, but I think Japan’s course is reasonable and sensible.”

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