Japanese hepatitis patients yesterday rejected a government compensation proposal in a high-profile scandal over tainted blood, a move that could further erode Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's falling poll ratings.
Media are presenting the emotive scandal, in which people received tainted blood products years ago, as a test for Fukuda, who already faces voter anger over mishandled pension records and a bribery case involving a former top defense official.
At least 10,000 people are estimated to have contracted hepatitis C from tainted products. Most cases have been linked to fibrinogen, a coagulant used to stop haemorrhaging during surgery or childbirth and sold in Japan even after it was withdrawn in the United States in 1977.
A group of patients had sued the government and drug makers seeking compensation but rejected a settlement proposal by a regional court last week, saying it would only provide aid to a limited number of them.
They called on Fukuda to go beyond the court proposal and provide compensation under equal conditions to all who contracted hepatitis from tainted blood products. The patients had also repeatedly asked for a meeting with him but were turned down.
"As long as the government continues to draw a line for lives, we cannot go on with settlement talks," Tomoko Kuwata, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters. "Why were our fair demands not accepted? It makes me sad," she said, with tears in her eyes.
Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, while bowing in apology for the scandal before flashing cameras, told a news conference the government could not pay compensation beyond the court proposal.
The government has offered to pay money directly to around 700 patients, while setting up a common fund for 300 others, in a deal worth a total of around 17 billion yen ($150 million), Kyodo news agency said.
"We cannot have an settlement that goes against the settlement proposal by the Osaka High Court," Masuzoe said.
Later yesterday Fukuda apologized for the sufferings inflicted on the hepatitis patients and said he would deal with the compensation issue "flexibly".
"I want to apologize from my heart" Fukuda told reporters. "We don't think we have done everything. If the high court makes a decision, we will respond flexibly. I want the accusers to come forward for talks."
Media have said Fukuda was under pressure to appeal to voters but at the same time was wary of financial commitments that could amount to nearly 200 billion yen if the government were to compensate all hepatitis patients infected with tainted blood.