Diet makes itself safer from novel coronavirus infections

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks behind an acrylic panel during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session in the Diet building on Jan. 25.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks behind an acrylic panel during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session in the Diet building on Jan. 25.Japan News-Yomiuri photo.

TOKYO - A year into the pandemic, the Diet has taken serious action to make Japan's seat of power a safer workplace. Acrylic panels have been set up in the committee rooms of the House of Representatives as one measure taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The House of Councillors no longer has water pitchers to provide refreshment for lawmakers during deliberations.

The lower house installed acrylic panels on Jan. 22 in front of the podiums used by the prime minister and cabinet members during the Budget Committee meeting to prevent infection from airborne droplets.

The secretariat of the upper house, which provided the water pitchers, switched to individual plastic bottles starting with the Budget Committee on Jan. 27, with the aim of keeping multiple house members from touching the same pitcher.

Behind the recent strengthening of coronavirus countermeasures is that infections have been spreading among lawmakers, their staff and Diet personnel.

As many as nine lawmakers have been confirmed to be infected, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan's Yuichiro Hata, a former Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister who passed away in December. There has also been a spate of infections among lawmakers' secretaries and staff members of both houses. "A wave of the coronavirus is hitting the Diet," said a young Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker.

The Diet had previously taken other measures against the coronavirus. Since April, upper house members sitting in plenary sessions have left one seat vacant on both sides. The chamber, as a remnant of the time of the former House of Peers, has 460 seats, which leaves more than enough room for the 245 members. Because the lower house chamber does not have enough seats, the number of members present at one time is reduced to about half, except when a vote is taken. However, it cannot be said that adopting a series of infection prevention measures will be enough to fix the problem.

With many lawmakers crowding the chamber and committee rooms, the "Three Cs" situation - closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings - has persisted.

Nothing has been done to regulate the number of those present at the Budget Committee of the lower house, where the 50 committee members are joined by the prime minister, cabinet members and their secretaries.

At a meeting of the Rules and Administration Committee of the lower house on Jan. 26, the Nippon Ishin no Kai party warned about crowding in the Budget Committee, and many voiced similar concerns.

In response, CDPJ vice leader Kiyomi Tsujimoto, who serves as the opposition parties' chief director of the Budget Committee, said, "We are aware of the problem," and that countermeasures are being considered.