February 28, 2020 / 3:16 AM / a month ago

Japan scrambles for workarounds after Abe urges March school shutdown to stem coronavirus

* Companies, working parents caught flat-footed

* Angry parents take to social media

* Experts, analysts slate move as political, ineffective

* Interactive graphic tracking coronavirus: open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in external browser

By Chang-Ran Kim and Ju-min Park

TOKYO, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Angry Japanese parents joined bewildered teachers and businesses on Friday in a rush to find new ways to live and work for a month after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shock call for all schools to close in a bid to stop coronavirus spreading.

Abe’s unprecedented move late on Thursday to ask local authorities to shut down their schools means students will be out of school from Monday at least until the new academic year starts in early April.

Earlier this week the government urged that big gatherings and sports events be scrapped or curtailed for two weeks to contain the virus while pledging that the 2020 Summer Olympics will go ahead in Tokyo.

As of Friday, confirmed cases in Japan topped 200, with four deaths, excluding more than 700 cases and four more deaths from the quarantined cruise liner Diamond Princess. While the virus has hit China hardest so far, causing nearly 80,000 infections and almost 2,800 deaths, according to official Chinese figures, its rapid spread to a number of other countries around in the world in the past week has stoked fresh alarm.

Abe’s move - issued as a formal request rather than an order - drew scathing criticism, with health officials left scratching their heads and analysts said the plan was politically motivated and made little sense.

“We’ll just have to get our revenge at the next elections,” @Ayu49Sweetfish tweeted, as working parents with young children were left wondering what to do for the duration.

In the northern Hokkaido prefecture, which has seen the largest number of coronavirus cases in Japan, the governor had already announced a closure of all schools until March 4. That left one hospital closing doors to patients without reservations on Friday because about a fifth of its nurses were unable to work while their children were out of school.

“We don’t know how this could be extended further,” an official at the facility, JA Hokkaido Koseiren Obihiro Kosei Hospital, told Reuters.

As the coronavirus spreads, more companies like Mitsubishi Corp have said they would allow workers to telecommute. But a survey in the Nikkei business daily published on Friday, conducted before Abe’s announcement, showed only half of major firms were telling all or some employees to work at home.

As the government faced questions on how businesses would cope with a March shutdown of schools, Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co said they were still discussing how their factories would deal with school closures. The operator of Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea said it would close the theme parks from Saturday through March 15.

“We will continue to urge public services and private companies to make it easier for people to take time off,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, without disclosing further details.

ABE UNDER FIRE

Abe has come under fire for what critics say is a lack of leadership as the number of cases in Japan rose and a package of steps announced on Tuesday that was seen as insufficient.

He also caught flak in parliament and social media after revelations that an aide had held a buffet-style fund-raising party with about 200 attendees on Feb. 26 - the same day the premier asked for sports and cultural events to be scaled down.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, said Abe’s move on schools was plainly political in the wake of surveys showing growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the outbreak.

“Suddenly, he sees the political consequences of being seen as missing in action,” Kingston said, noting his support had fallen to around 36% in a weekend poll.

“It’s still half measures - stay home, wash your hands, avoid other people. He’s outsourcing responsibility to local governments and corporations,” Kingston said.

Experts also questioned the efficacy of the government’s move on schools.

“This is one example of a nationwide plan that has a slim chance of succeeding because the extent the coronavirus has spread differs across regions,” Kentaro Iwata, a professor specialising in infectious diseases at Kobe University Hospital, tweeted.

He added that it “made no sense” to close schools outside of Hokkaido.

Meanwhile World Health Organization officials said they were working closely with organisers of the Tokyo Olympic Games and did not believe any decision would be taken soon on whether to hold the event starting in July as planned. (Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Ju-min Park, Sakura Murakami, Linda Sieg and Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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