Japan Inc summoned to vaccinate its ranks

The addition of workplace vaccinations is expected to help Japan reach its goal of a million shots per day by the end of June. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - In a country where workplaces play an outsized role in people's lives, Japan is betting that enlisting its largest corporations to roll out Covid-19 vaccines will add fuel to a much-scrutinised inoculation drive.

Still grappling with a rollout that's vaccinated only 11 per cent of the population, the Japanese government is allowing its biggest corporate brand names and employers like Toyota Motor, SoftBank Group, and Nomura Holdings to administer shots to their own employees within office premises from Monday (June 21).

Using Moderna's messenger RNA shot, the effort is currently expected to cover about one-tenth of the country's 126 million residents and hopefully accelerate what is still among the slowest inoculation programs in developed countries, though its pace has picked up markedly since May.

The program co-opts previous critics like Rakuten Group CEO Hiroshi Mikitani - who has called the government's vaccination operations "complicated and cumbersome" - and will likely help ease vaccine hesitation among the younger population. Peer pressure is strong across Japanese workplaces, where some are still employed in the same company for life.

Trust in her employer was a factor for Ms Yuki Oba, 42, who works at Internet conglomerate GMO Payment Gateway. Ms Oba said she was concerned about her allergies and was planning to get vaccinated at a doctor's office when it was available, but decided she felt comfortable getting the jab at work.

"It feels like most of my co-workers have booked an appointment already," she said. "Now, most of the work chat is about 'When are you getting vaccinated?'"

While places like the US debate whether workplaces can require vaccinations for employees to return, and others like Hong Kong pressure private businesses to help raise vaccine uptake, Japan's workplace drive is a natural move for a culture in which companies play a large role in providing for employees.

Although known for the unhealthy number of hours workers have to put in, Japan's corporations also offer social safety nets for their employees, such as annual health checks and sometimes housing support.

Companies keen

The addition of workplace vaccinations is expected to help Japan reach its goal of a million shots per day by the end of June, the country's vaccine czar Taro Kono told reporters last week. Universities will also be part of the mix.

So far, the government has received 3,479 applications for the program, with doses set to cover 13.7 million people.

The workplace program has met with a swift and enthusiastic response from Japan Inc., many of whose executives had complained openly about the speed of the rollout and its impact on businesses.

The effort could also help vaccinate more of Japan's younger people, whom officials had worried would be less inclined to get the jab as they are less likely to get serious symptoms if infected with the virus.

Within days of the announcement of workplace shots on June 1, executives at some of Japan's most well-known companies were on TV showing off large event spaces suitable for vaccination and offering details of the medical personnel secured to give shots.

SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son gave Mr Kono a personal tour of one of its vaccination sites - a WeWork office just a stone's throw away from Tokyo's Roppongi neighbourhood. Airlines such as ANA Holdings got a head start and began vaccinating their employees last week.

"Companies want to actively help revive economic activity, and in Japan that means encouraging vaccination for our employees," said Mr Masato Ikeda, a senior director at SoftBank who is overseeing part of the vaccination effort.

SoftBank Group plans to vaccinate over 250,000 workers, family members and people living close to its offices across 15 locations in Japan with a total capacity of 10,000 shots a day.

Japan's vaccination drive has been weighed down by a conservative medical culture and bureaucratic wrangling, something the workplace inoculation will help ameliorate. Currently, enough vaccines have been given to cover 11 per cent of the population, compared to about half in the US and UK, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.

In Japan, "people are used to their employers offering medical checks and doing health care through their employers - vaccines would be an extension of that," said Ms Annamarie Sasagawa, a former director of corporate culture at consumer goods firm Kao and a doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo whose research focused on globalisation of Japanese businesses.

Some say the workplace rollout needs to go even faster and cover more people: the initial program is limited to large companies with more than 1,000 employees, leaving out small and medium-sized enterprises which employ the bulk of Japan's workforce.

A few companies have banded together to appeal for shots from the government. Investment firm Coral Capital secured a vaccination site, doctors and enough interest among workers at its portfolio companies to make an application for doses for 1,800 people, said Mr James Riney, a founding partner at the firm.

As other funds and their companies joined in, the number quickly grew to 25,000. "A huge chunk of the startup ecosystem in Japan will be able to get vaccinated through our effort," he said.

The expanded access to vaccinations via work could also be a mood booster for the country's younger generations, said Dr Kohei Onozaki, a professor of health policy at St Luke's International University's School of Public Health in Tokyo.

"From what I hear, there's a lot of frustration among people of working age that they cannot get the vaccine."

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