Japan considers banning all spectators from Olympics

Government wary of public anger over Games as Covid-19 infections rise in Tokyo

Organisers have already banned overseas spectators at the Tokyo Olympics and set a cap on domestic spectators at 50% of capacity, up to 10,000 people, to contain a lingering coronavirus outbreak. Photograph:  Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Organisers have already banned overseas spectators at the Tokyo Olympics and set a cap on domestic spectators at 50% of capacity, up to 10,000 people, to contain a lingering coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

 

Japan is considering banning all spectators from the Olympics, several sources told Reuters on Wednesday, with authorities expected to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo to contain coronavirus infections 16 days before the Games begin.

Prime minister Yoshihide Suga said his government would decide on new measures to stop the spread of the virus on Thursday. Those measures are expected to determine whether spectators can attend Olympic events.

Medical experts have said for weeks that having no spectators at the Olympics would be the least risky option amid widespread public concern that the Games will fuel new surges of coronavirus infections.

Organisers have already banned overseas spectators and set a cap on domestic spectators at 50 per cent of capacity, up to 10,000 people, to contain a lingering coronavirus outbreak.

Officials have been wrestling with the question for months but a ruling party setback in a Tokyo assembly election on Sunday, which some allies of Mr Suga attributed to public anger over the Games, had forced their thinking, sources said.

“Politically speaking, having no spectators is now unavoidable,” a ruling party source told Reuters.

Japan will hold a general election later this year and the government’s insistence that the Games – postponed last year as the virus was spreading around the world – should go ahead this year could cost it at the ballot box.

The Tokyo 2020 organising committee said restrictions on spectators would be based on the content of Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency or other relevant measures.

Japan has not experienced the kind of explosive Covid-19 outbreaks seen elsewhere but has had more than 800,000 cases and 14,800 deaths.

Authorities have struggled to stamp out persistent clusters of infections, particularly in and around the capital, Tokyo, which reported 920 new daily cases on Wednesday, the highest since May 13th.

A slow rollout has meant only one-quarter of its population has had at least one Covid-19 vaccination shot.

Mr Suga told reporters a decision on virus restrictions would be made on Thursday after talks with health experts. He vowed to respond to Tokyo’s rising cases.

The Sankei daily, citing government sources, said the government was preparing to declare a state of emergency for Tokyo to contain the virus. The Nikkei newspaper later said the new emergency measures would last until August 22nd.

That could mean a ban on spectators at Olympic events as restrictions already in place in the city would be strengthened beyond an original end-date of July 11th. Sankei said a “quasi emergency” in place in three prefectures neighbouring Tokyo, which will host some Olympic events, would be extended.

The Games begin on July 23rd and end on August 8th.

The government will meet International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and Tokyo organisers on Thursday or Friday to discuss the question of spectators.

Top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said this week Mr Suga had said holding the Games without spectators was a possibility.

Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the organising committee, said earlier on Wednesday organisers were striving to ensure safety for everyone with effective public health measures against Covid-19.

Mr Muto, addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva by a recorded video, added: “Through the successful hosting of the Tokyo 2020 Games, we hope to show the world that people have the right to live healthier and happier lives, even in difficult circumstances.”

Shigeru Omi, the government’s top health adviser, told a parliamentary health committee it was important to reduce the number of Olympic officials and others attending events as much as possible.

Early July to September was “one of the most important periods” in combating the virus in Japan, he said.

“We have been saying that it’s preferable that the events be held without spectators,” Mr Omi said.

“We are asking many people to take steps to prevent further spread of the infection. Images of spectators would be sending out a contradictory message.”

Tokyo authorities have also decided to move most of the torch relay, set to reach the capital on Friday, off public roads. Torch-lighting ceremonies without spectators will be held instead. – Reuters

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