Japan PM returns to work after positive test for Covid-19 as support tumbles

Links to the Unification Church and persistently high Covid-19 cases have become a headache for Mr Kishida. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida returned to official duties Monday (Aug 22) after testing positive for Covid-19 over the weekend, and will stay in quarantine until the end of the month.  

Mr Kishida, 65, developed a cough and slight fever on Saturday night and came up positive in a PCR test.

His fever had since subsided and he’s working remotely from his official residence, top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told a news briefing Monday.

The premier was expected to visit Tunisia for an African development conference that starts this week but instead will participate remotely, Mr Matsuno added.  

The infection adds to the woes of the prime minister who is also seeing an erosion of his high support rate over a Cabinet reshuffle this month where he appointed members with ties to the Unification Church.  

The approval rate for Mr Kishida’s government plunged 16 percentage points from about a month ago to 36 per cent, according to a survey in a Mainichi newspaper poll taken over the weekend. 

It was the lowest since he took office last October.  

Those who believed ties between the Unification Church and Mr Kishida's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were either "an extreme problem" or "something of a problem" hit 87 per cent. Only 4 per cent believed it was not a problem at all.

Links to the church, founded in South Korea in the 1950s and famous for its mass weddings, have become a headache for Mr Kishida since July 8, when former premier Shinzo Abe was shot and his suspected killer said his mother was bankrupted by the church and blamed Mr Abe for promoting it.

Mr Kishida reshuffled his Cabinet on Aug 10 and removed some Cabinet members with ties to the church in an attempt to bolster support, but 68 per cent of respondents said they did not approve of the move against only 16 per cent who did.

“Regarding the issues related to the Unification Church, we should pay enough attention to relationships with organisations that are socially criticised, so people won’t have concerns,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a regular news conference.

New coronavirus cases remain persistently high, prompting 55 per cent of respondents to say they did not approve of the government's handling of the situation.

On the question of the state funeral for Mr Abe set for Sept 27, which will be paid for by the government, 53 per cent said they were against the idea.

Mr Kishida does not need to face a national election for three years after his LDP scored a victory in races for the Upper House of Parliament in July.

But a further decline in support could fuel concern over a return of Japan’s revolving-door leadership between 2006 and 2012 when the Topix index slumped 45 per cent, compared with a dip of 2.1 per cent in the MSCI World Index.

Mr Kishida is the most recent leader of a Group of Seven leading economy to become infected with Covid-19 after US President Joe Biden, who recovered from a bout of Covid-19 after experiencing mild symptoms.

Both Mr Biden and Mr Kishida were fully vaccinated for the coronavirus.   

Coronavirus infections in Japan have remained near record highs in recent week, with 24,780 Covid cases found in Tokyo alone on Sunday.

That’s forcing politicians and healthcare officials to reconsider what steps, if any, are needed to contain the outbreak.

The same problem is facing countries around the globe, as the arrival of more infectious Omicron subvariants has led to higher infection rates even as testing in most areas is on the decline.  

The end of pandemic restrictions on businesses in late March helped to spur the Japanese economy.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than half of Japan’s economic output, led the growth, as did capital expenditure.

The relaxing of Covid rules resulted in increased spending at restaurants and hotels, as well as on clothes.  

Mr Kishida, who has been calling on the elderly to get their fourth Covid-19 vaccination, got a booster shot himself earlier this month.

The route of infection is unknown at this time, and only some family members, including Mr Kishida’s wife, are close contacts, broadcaster NHK reported, citing government officials.

He played golf last Tuesday – his first round since becoming premier in October – and the following day went to a hot spring resort, Kyodo News reported.

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