By Antoni Slodkowski and Ami Miyazaki
TOKYO -Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said on Tuesday that a sufficient number of hospitals combined with a speed-up in the COVID-19 vaccination rollout among the elderly meant the city will be able to hold “safe and secure” Olympics in 10 days.
But Koike, speaking to Reuters in an interview at the Tokyo government headquarters that has for the last few weeks doubled as a vaccination site, also warned the coronavirus pandemic was far from over and the spreading Delta variant remained a risk.
“Very many people will be vaccinated in the coming 10 days and during the Olympics. The biggest change as a result of that will be a substantive fall in the ratio of deaths and severe cases among the elderly,” Koike said.
“Because of that, and because the medical system is ready, I think we can press ahead with a safe Olympics,” said Koike, who has returned to work after a brief break due to fatigue during which she was admitted to hospital.
Japan’s vaccination rollout got off to a slow start and has faced supply glitches after speeding up. Only about 28% of the population has received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Japanese capital entered its fourth state of emergency on Monday causing bars and restaurants to close early, amid a rebound in COVID-19 cases that also pushed the Games organisers last week to ban spectators from nearly all venues.
Spectators from abroad were already banned months ago, and officials are now asking residents to watch the Games on TV to keep the movement of people to a minimum.
U.S. First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Tokyo for the opening ceremony on July 23, the White House said in an announcement on Tuesday that did not include her husband, President Joe Biden.
“It’s very sad that the Games are being held without spectators,” said Koike. “It’s clear we’ll be able to lower the risks, but the spectators are also very important for the athletes and give them a big boost. It’s a big shame that we have to hold the Olympics without them.”
Koike, 68, often floated as a potential prime minister, was re-elected governor in a landslide last year, winning public support for her straight-talking approach to the pandemic in contrast with a sluggish nationwide vaccination rollout.
The Citizens First party, linked to Koike, performed strongly in this month’s local assembly elections, leading to speculation – so far rejected by Koike – that she may make a comeback to national politics.
On Tuesday, she did not directly address questions on the matter.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, who is in Japan ahead of the Games, will meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Wednesday, news agency Jiji reported.
Bach also plans to visit the city of Hiroshima on Friday, Hiroshima prefecture said in a statement. Hiroshima, in western Japan, was the first city to suffer an atomic bombing at the end of World War Two.
Tokyo 2020 organisers also contacted Nagasaki prefecture earlier on Tuesday to inform them that senior IOC official John Coates would be visiting Nagasaki on Friday, a prefecture official said.
Nagasaki, on the island of Kyushu, was the second and last city to suffer an atomic bombing.
Bach would also visit the cities of Fukushima and Sapporo, Japan’s Kyodo News agency said.
The Games, postponed from last year because of the pandemic, run from July 23 to Aug. 8, while the state of emergency – the capital’s fourth – lasts until Aug. 22, shortly before the Paralympics begin.