Tokyo's Covid outbreak adds to doubts over hosting Olympic Games

Emergency measures expanded to cover more than half of Japan’s population

A man wearing a face mask with the Olympic rings in the background in Tokyo
The president of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee has said it is ‘absolutely impossible’ to postpone the Games again. Photograph: Eugene Hoshiko/AP

A dramatic rise in coronavirus cases in Tokyo has reignited speculation about the Olympic Games, which are due to open in the city in just over six months’ time.

Japan widened its coronavirus state of emergency to cover more than half the population on Wednesday as surging infections sparked warnings of intense pressure on hospitals.

The prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, said anti-virus measures introduced in the greater Tokyo region – at the centre of the latest wave of cases – would be expanded to include seven other prefectures.

Suga said he would “take every measure” to protect lives, adding that all non-resident foreign nationals would be banned from entering Japan until the emergency measures were lifted. Japan had previously permitted business travellers from 11 Asian countries where case numbers appeared to be under control.

Yoshiro Mori, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, said preparations would continue, despite growing doubts that the Games can be held while the pandemic continues. Mori, a former Japanese prime minister, said postponing them a second time would be “absolutely impossible”.

The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in March last year to postpone Tokyo 2020 by a year due to the pandemic, and agreed that a second delay was out of the question. The only remaining options are to go ahead this summer or cancel the Games altogether.

Mori conceded that organisers would soon have to decide whether to allow overseas spectators to attend. “I think we will have to make a very difficult decision around February to March,” he said.

Takeshi Niinami, the chief executive of the Japanese beverage group Suntory, said he was unsure if the games could go ahead, echoing doubts voiced last week by the IOC’s longest-serving member, Dick Pound.

“I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to hold the Tokyo Olympics or not,” Niinami said. “But it’s a great message to the world … we should make every effort.”

The IOC and Games organisers say they have a “toolbox” of measures that will make it possible to ensure the safety of 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as well as tens of thousands of officials and other Games-related staff, but they are not due to reveal detailed plans until the northern hemisphere spring.

Speculation is building that a decision on the Games future will have to be made by the end of March when the torch relay, involving 10,000 runners, is due to start in Fukushima.

Japan is not due to start vaccinating its 126 million people until late February at the earliest, beginning with 10,000 frontline medical workers, followed by vulnerable older people in March.

The government’s determination to push ahead with a “safe and secure” Olympics is at odds with public opinion, which has turned against the Games since Covid-19 cases began to surge in the host city and other parts of the country towards the end of last year.

Several opinion polls have shown a clear majority of Japanese people oppose holding the Games this year. On Wednesday a poll by the public broadcaster NHK found that just 16% thought the Olympics should go ahead in July, while a combined 77% thought they should be cancelled or postponed.

“The Japanese public are already more and more inclined to oppose the hosting of the Olympics this summer, and the state of emergency reinforces the perception that it is a lost cause,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

While Japan has avoided a catastrophic Covid-19 outbreak, the country is struggling to contain the most recent surge. The nationwide caseload rose above 300,000 on Wednesday, while the death toll reached 4,187, NHK said.

Under the latest move, Osaka and other parts of western Japan will join the state of emergency along with Aichi, a centrally located industrial and commercial hub, and Fukuoka in the south-west.

In all the measures, initially set to end on 7 February, will apply to 11 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, accounting for 60% of its GDP and just over half its population.

“Unless we rein in infections in big cities, we can’t stop the spread nationally,” said the health minister, Norihisa Tamura.

Japanese authorities do not have the legal powers to enforce anti-virus measures, although the government is planning legislation to fine businesses such as bars and restaurants that do not comply with requests to close by 8pm.

In addition, companies have been asked to increase remote working provision in an attempt to reduce public transport use, and people have been encouraged to avoid non-essential outings.

Suga, whose approval ratings have plummeted over his handling of the pandemic, is reluctant to introduce measures that could harm the world’s third-biggest economy.

Some health experts have warned that hospitals are struggling to cope with an influx of Covid patients, and that a month-long “soft lockdown” is unlikely to have much impact on case numbers.

“It’s very unlikely we’ll see cases go down after just a month,” said Yoshihito Niki, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Showa University hospital. “Japan has been called a success story and there’s been discussion about the so-called X factor – something that makes the Japanese more resistant to the virus – but that’s a complete fantasy.”