As omicron spreads in Japan, business continuity plans come into focus

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As daily COVID-19 cases break new records every day in Japan, concern is growing that day-to-day business operations — in sectors from health care to railways — could become paralyzed if more workers become absent from either being infected with the virus or being considered a close contact, making them need to isolate for 10 days.

It’s a scenario many experts have warned about, and the government has asked companies to create business continuity plans (BCPs) and make sure they have one in place in case many employees cannot work.

On Friday, industry minister Koichi Hagiuda spoke online with business leaders at the Japan Business Federation, also known as Keidanren, asking them to ensure they have a solid BCP in place. Leaders from the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and the Federation of Electric Power Companies were also present.

Subway lines in New York City have been frequently suspended during the past few weeks after workers called in sick. In France, the shortage of medical personnel has been great enough that infected workers with mild or no symptoms have been allowed to continue treating COVID-19 patients.

Many local governments in Japan have already prepared their own BCPs. Some have even launched them already.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which operates the Toei subway lines as well as some hospitals, has prepared to ask up to 3,000 officials for assistance if a significant number of government workers call in sick.

The Toei operator has learned from December 2020, when it reduced operations on the Oedo Line to 70% of its normal amount for two weeks after about a quarter of its train drivers were infected with COVID-19 or deemed a close contact.

Meanwhile, Tokyo’s Suginami Ward closed down some of its libraries and museums from Jan. 13, shifting its resources to public health centers.

According to a report by Teikoku Databank released last week, about 28.7% of respondents from around 1,600 companies surveyed said they intend to revise or create a new BCP due to the spread of omicron.

But 24.3% of them, especially small and midsize firms, said they have no plans to do so, partly because they don’t have the necessary manpower.

If infections continue to grow at the current pace, each passing day increases the possibility of critical infrastructure being forced to shut down: train lines, fire departments, nursing homes and day care facilities are all at risk.

With that in mind, health minister Shigeyuki Goto appeared on TV on Sunday to say that the government is considering shortening the isolation period for essential workers from the current six days.

People get on a bus at Hakata Station in Fukuoka on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to an estimate published Friday from Takashi Tsuchiya, professor of statistics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, the number of daily cases in the capital may reach around 20,000 to 30,000 in early February, while the number of close contacts may spike to 1.4 million. This would mean that 1 out of 10 Tokyo residents was either infected or a close contact.

“To avoid social confusion, (the government needs to) stop tracking down close contacts and stop asking them to isolate themselves,” Tsuchiya wrote on his website. “(The government) should shift to conducting monitoring testing (in which people who don’t have symptoms are randomly tested) to see how community transmission is spreading.”

On Sunday, nationwide daily new cases were 50,030, up from 25,641 the same day the week before. On Monday, Tokyo reported 8,503 cases, up from 3,719 the same day last week, while Chiba Prefecture saw a record 2,760 cases.

As of Thursday, at least 327 day care centers in 27 prefectures had closed due to the virus, the health ministry said Monday, a move that affects working parents.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said later on Monday that the government intends to declare quasi-emergencies for the 18 additional prefectures that have requested one, which would bring the number of prefectures under the measure to 34 out of 47.

The government is expected to hold a task force meeting to make a formal decision on Tuesday. It is also considering extending the emergencies for Yamaguchi, Hiroshima and Okinawa prefectures, which are set to expire at the end of the month.

Information from Kyodo added

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