TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan said on Friday that it would bring forward the date that the coronavirus will become a “designated infectious disease,” as a third chartered flight carrying Japanese citizens arrived from Wuhan amid concerns about how to deal with the returnees.
Officials wearing masks wait for the arrival of Japanese nationals evacuated from Wuhan, at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo, Japan in this photo taken by Kyodo January 30, 2020. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS
Japan now has 14 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, an epidemic that is believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Two of those returned on the first chartered flight and had shown no symptoms.
The government classified the new coronavirus as a designated infectious disease on Tuesday, but the designation will take effect on Saturday rather than the original date of Feb. 7. The designation allows compulsory hospitalization and the use of public funds for treatment, among other measures.
Two people on the third flight were taken to medical institutions several people on the flight had felt unwell, NHK public television said.
As worries grew in Japan over a further spread of the disease, the government said it would refuse entry to anyone infected and consider stricter screening for suspected cases, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.
Suga also told a news conference that the government would consider paying for the chartered flights out of Wuhan, as opposition lawmakers criticized its policy of charging passengers 80,000 yen ($730) each.
“We decided on these changes in view of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) declaration of a global emergency,” Suga said.
The president of Japanese airline ANA Holdings (9202.T) said the company may consider suspending China flights, Jiji news agency reported on Friday. The airline said on Thursday that bookings for flights leaving China fell by half in February.
The third flight out of Wuhan, which arrived on Friday morning, brings the total number of expatriated nationals to 565.
The government has come under fire in parliament and on social media over what critics say is inept handling of the returned Japanese, such as allowing two asymptomatic people from the first flight to refuse testing and “self quarantine”, though by Friday they had consented to tests.
Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told a parliamentary committee that Japan was doing everything possible and would change its response if conditions changed.
“We still don’t know how strongly contagious this is … we understand that everybody is concerned,” he said, but warned there were limits to what the government could do while still respecting human rights.
The government plans to use public facilities, such as training centers, to house the returnees.
Epidemiologist David Fisman, a professor at the University of Toronto, said that although there are more than 90 cases around the world outside China, the number of secondary cases there remains fewer than 10.
“That means the reproduction number outside China is currently less than 0.1. Diseases do not spark epidemics unless reproduction numbers are over 1,” he said.
“I realize this is an anxiety-provoking time,” he added. “This is scary for everyone.”
Defence Minister Kono Taro said the government was also considering using a ferry under contract to Japan’s self-defense forces as a possible place for people to stay.
Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Elaine Lies,; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Gerry Doyle