Coronavirus: Japanese PM Shinzo Abe stands firm on school closure despite stiff opposition

Mr Shinzo Abe's plan calls for elementary, junior high, senior high and special needs schools to close from next Monday, in a move that will extend until the spring break. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood firm on Friday (Feb 28) on his abrupt call for schools to close for a month, amid stiff pushback from parents, educators and infectious diseases experts who say the move was excessive and unnecessary.

The blanket school closures nationwide, said to be a top-down decision that has stunned even government health experts and senior officials in the Education Ministry, came as Mr Abe was facing heat from a dissatisfied public over what has - until now - been seen as relaxed measures to combat the coronavirus.

Separately, Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka said they will close from Saturday until March 15, joining other popular tourist attractions such as Ghibli Museum and the Kabukiza theatre in Ginza in shutting their doors to curb the spread of the virus.

The call for schools to close, as well as fake news of a national toilet paper shortage, had briefly sparked panic buying among an anxious public.

"Toilet paper" trended on Twitter overnight, as users across the country posted photographs of empty shelves at supermarkets and drugstores.

Mr Abe wants elementary, junior high, senior high and special needs schools to close from next Monday. The move will extend until the spring break, which starts on March 25, with schools to reopen on April 6 at the earliest.

The announcement caused a national furore. Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda toned down the message on Friday, saying that local authorities should exercise "flexible judgment "as to when is the best time to shut.

While the general consensus was that it was understandable if schools were made to close in virus-hit areas like Hokkaido, which had 66 cases as of Friday, experts say that shutting schools in non-affected areas amounted to a political stunt.

Hokkaido on Friday (Feb 28) declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. Hokkaido's declaration, which for now lasts until March 19, is the first among Japan's 47 prefectures and came as it confirmed another 12 cases yesterday. Governor Naomichi Suzuki, wearing a mask, urged residents to avoid going out unnecessarily this weekend to halt the spread of the disease.

Japan has 227 cases of the coronavirus as of 6.30pm (5.30pm in Singapore) on Friday, including five deaths.

The infections were spread across 19 out of Japan's 47 prefectures, which means another 28 have no Covid-19 cases so far.

Mr Abe promised that the government will draw up all necessary measures "without any hesitation" to fight the outbreak and mitigate the impact of the unprecedented policy.

"The government will be responsible for responding to the various issues arising from these measures," Mr Abe told the Diet, as Japan's Parliament is known.

He reiterated that the next two weeks will be crucial for Japan, which is at a tipping point in its fight to stop the coronavirus outbreak from becoming an epidemic.

Finance Minister Taro Aso also sought to calm anxieties among parents on Friday.

He said: "The government would make financial arrangements to alleviate the burden on households, including dual-income and single-parent families, that are affected by the policy."

There have been varying decisions nationwide as to when to close schools. Hokkaido schools have been shut since Thursday, while Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya plan to heed the government's call to close from next Monday.

Kyoto will only make a decision on when to close on Monday, while Ehime will close its schools from Wednesday.

Chiba City Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said city schools will close from next Tuesday for two weeks, instead of until spring break.

This is taking into account the incubation period of the coronavirus, he said.

"We need to make sure that there is enough epidemiological evidence from the government to justify depriving students of opportunities to learn," he said.

The city of Kanazawa will not shut its schools on Monday.

Mayor Yukiyoshi Yamano said: "We share the sense of crisis with the Prime Minister, but this is a major social experiment.

"The government has to be cautious with such large-scale unprecedented moves. There is not too much time for citizens and our city to make preparations".

The coronavirus outbreak has also robbed graduating students across the country of the chance to attend their graduation ceremonies, including at Waseda University in Tokyo, while other schools plan to scale down their ceremonies instead.

Experts and observers question Mr Abe's call for schools to be closed.

Former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe said that little thought had apparently been given to the need of dual-income families or the shortage of personnel in medical and welfare facilities.

Dr Kentaro Iwata, an infectious diseases expert from Kobe University, had criticised the government's quarantine measures on the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

"The infections so far have had a large regional difference, and such a uniform plan nationwide makes no sense," he wrote on Twitter.

"The problem is that there is no transparency in what data is being interpreted, how it is being interpreted, and how decisions are being made."

Local government leaders also criticised the move. While Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura expressed some understanding for the rationale, he described it as a "shocking sudden request with no specific details".

Mr Kumagai of Chiba City said on Twitter: "How will parents who are medical workers or doing other jobs that support society manage? Society could collapse."

The Mainichi daily, noting that the plan to shut schools was not mentioned in the government's basic policy against the coronavirus that was adopted on Tuesday, said: "There is no denying that the prime minister's announcement was abrupt.

"The government should respond responsibly to the various challenges that accompany the no-school measure," it said on Friday.

"It is not just the schools that are impacted by the latest developments. The burden on children and their guardians must be taken into consideration."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.