Japan’s virus czar enters quarantine, freezing response team

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — The Japanese minister in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus worked from home Saturday after a government official who accompanied him on a visit to a hospital this month tested positive for COVID-19.

“A member of the Cabinet Secretariat’s office for novel coronavirus disease control was infected with the new coronavirus,” Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister, said in a Twitter post on Saturday. “I am fine with no symptoms, but just in case, I will wait at home.”

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads to Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district — Japan’s equivalent of Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue or London’s Whitehall — the government is rushing to fire up contingency plans in fear of losing a central command to fight the virus.

Nishimura canceled a press conference scheduled for Saturday. He also did not attend a coronavirus task force meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Health Minister Katsunobu Kato.

The government said a male official in his 40s working in the Cabinet Secretariat had a fever on Tuesday and tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. The official accompanied Nishimura on Apr. 19 on a work visit to the University of Tokyo Hospital. Nishimura went on NHK via telephone Saturday night and said that he had confirmed with a health center that he was not in high-risk contact with the infected official, but that he was working from home to avoid the slightest possibility that he may spread the virus.

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan’s s minister in charge of the country’s coronavirus response, is staying home as a precautionary measure after an official who accompanied him on working visit to a hospital tested positive for COVID-19.

  © Reuters

Nishimura also serves as the fiscal policy minister and economic revitalization minister but was given extra responsibility after the outbreak.

Down the road from the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism also announced that one of its employees, a man in his 20s, was newly infected. The ministry now has eight confirmed cases among its staff, suggesting a possible forming of a cluster. 

Abe told reporters Saturday that it was imperative that the government be fully prepared for crisis management. “We have to acknowledge that there is a risk that everybody can be infected,” he said.

“We must protect ourselves,” Abe said, reiterating the need to stay at home. 

Central government agencies have encouraged employees to work remotely, conforming with the prime minister’s goal of reducing contact with other people by 80%. But with many bureaucrats having to brief members of parliament on policies and others tasked with responding to the the coronavirus, a large number of the mandarins are still working at the ministries.

The virus is inching closer to the prime minister. In the Cabinet Office, a staff member in the office of Ryota Takeda, the minister for disaster management has tested positive. A secretary for Taku Otsuka, a state minister of the Cabinet Office, has also been infected and was under home quarantine. At the foreign ministry, there have been cases at the deputy-minister level. 

“I won’t be surprised if people begin wondering if bureaucrats are spreading the virus from Kasumigaseki to the rest of Japan,” one bureaucrat said.    

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