Japan’s government moved to cool a social media furore by saying it was not looking to prioritise Covid-19 vaccines for Olympic athletes, dismissing a media report that said it was considering the option.
The chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Katō, said the government had no plans to give priority to Olympic athletes.
Japan’s vaccination drive is far behind that of most major economies, with only one vaccine approved and roughly 1 million people having received a first dose since February, even as the country struggles with a rising number of new cases.
The Kyodo news agency report claiming the government was considering the vaccine plan provoked outrage on social media, with many commentators noting that the original government plans for vaccinations gave priority to medical workers, elderly people and those with chronic conditions, with ordinary citizens unlikely to get theirs before the summer.Vaccinations for elderly people are set to start next week. If the Japanese athletes were given priority, they would have begun receiving shots before older people finish.
According to government officials quoted by Kyodo late on Wednesday, however, the government has begun looking into the possibility of making sure its Olympic and Paralympic athletes have had both shots by the end of June – so they have enough time to recover by the 23 July opening of the Games.
Kyodo reported that discussions with the Japanese Olympic and Paralympic committees were just beginning, and they had not decided whether all Japanese athletes or only those competing in certain events would be eligible for inoculation, it cited an official as saying, while voicing concern that including coaches and other staff could invite public criticism.
Inoculation is not a requirement to participate in the Games, Japan and the International Olympic Committee have said. But some countries, including the United States and nations in Europe and the Middle East have said they will be doing so. Australia’s Olympics athletes will not be required to have a Covid-19 vaccination but will be encouraged to do so, Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates said in February.
Earlier this week, North Korea withdrew from the Games citing coronavirus fears.
One user wrote online: “This is really weird. Given that we have no idea if even all the elderly will have received their vaccines by mid-June, you’re going to have all the athletes have theirs?”
The vast majority of Japanese want the Olympics, already postponed once, to be cancelled or postponed again, but the government says the event will go ahead as planned from 23 July – prompting one commentator to say: “They must really want the Olympics to go ahead, if they’re coming up with plans like this.”
But others had much simpler concerns. “Give it to my mother first,” wrote one. “Athletes are all young and healthy.”