TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Japan needs to consider scrapping the Tokyo Olympics and speeding up its vaccine roll-out amid growing virus infections, according to former finance minister Jun Azumi.
"We're at a point in time when we should seriously consider a cancellation or postponement," said Mr Azumi, leader of the main opposition party's parliamentary affairs committee in an interview on Monday (April 19). He added that recent polls showed 70 per cent of the public are against holding the Tokyo Games.
With virus cases increasing, the government's first priority should be to speed up its vaccine drive. To do that, it should cut the red tape that limits the number of people who can give vaccine jabs and distribute doses more efficiently within Japan, he added.
"We need a massive number of people who can actually administer doses," said Mr Azumi, acknowledging that difficulties securing the vaccines from abroad had also delayed inoculation efforts.
"The regulations haven't been eased and only a limited number of medical professionals have been given permission to administer the shots."
The comments come amid growing speculation that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will soon place Tokyo and some other cities under a third state of emergency as Japan struggles to contain the latest surge in infections.
A renewed emergency and tighter restrictions on activity will delay the economy's recovery while further testing the resolve of policymakers and Olympic organisers to press ahead with the Summer Games.
On Tuesday, Tokyo reported 711 new cases of Covid-19, taking the seven-day average well above 500, one of the metrics used to determine the duration of the previous state of emergency.
While Japan has fared better than other Group of Seven countries in limiting infections and deaths, its national tally of new cases is now trending above 4,000 per day, above the daily count in the UK, which started its vaccination programme months earlier.
Earlier this month, ruling party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai also indicated that cancelling the Olympics was a possibility as the country struggles to contain the latest wave of infections.
Mr Suga has insisted the Games will go ahead as scheduled this time. The prime minister said US President Joe Biden also backed the plans to stage the event during Mr Suga's visit to the White House last week.
The organisers of the Games in Tokyo are scheduled to give an update on preparations to the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday.
Japan has so far administered vaccine doses amounting to less than 2 per cent of its population, and the roll-out for the general public only began this month, starting with the over-65s. The pace of delivery is not set to speed up until May.
Arguing that the government had entirely underestimated the spread of Covid-19 variants, Mr Azumi said prioritising the vaccine roll-out was the best way to support the economy.
"Boosting the number of vaccinations is the best possible economic policy at this point," said Mr Azumi.
The economy was seen contracting 4.2 per cent in the first three months of the year before a strong rebound this quarter, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg this month.
The outlook for the second quarter is likely to deteriorate sharply if a renewed state of emergency is imposed, with some economists floating the risk of a double-dip recession depending on the tightness of new restrictions on activity.
"First quarter GDP is unlikely to be great, but the variants' spread may also pour cold water over the second quarter," Mr Azumi said.