Japan's business leaders urge government to reform Covid-19 vaccination programme

Japan's vaccination campaign has been sluggish, with just over 3.2 million doses administered. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - Japan's business leaders have urged the government to abandon its "outdated thinking" and fundamentally reform its Covid-19 inoculation programme.

This comes as the country has become a global laggard in inoculations and with the Tokyo Olympics less than three months away.

The country entered its Golden Week stretch of holidays on Thursday (April 29) under a state of emergency that began on Sunday and is slated to end on May 11.

But it imposes only limited curbs that will keep most shops open.

"There is no firm target for when vaccination of the general population will be completed, and therefore no clear vision on how to balance the prevention of further infection with the resumption of economic activities," said the Japan Association of New Economy (Jane) in its "urgent" proposal.

The document was signed off by two medical doctors, including Kyoto University Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, and 22 business leaders, including Rakuten chief executive Mickey Mikitani and Suntory president Takeshi Niinami.

"The government and local administrations must not be constrained by outdated thinking and must make effective use of private-sector expertise," they said, calling for coordinated and concerted effort.

The spread of Covid-19 has been relentless in Japan, with the current fourth wave driven by deadlier and more contagious variants.

But the emergency declaration, as well as rainy weather on Thursday, did little to keep people at home, with crowds packing the entertainment districts of Shibuya and Shinjuku in Tokyo.

Key transport hubs, such as Tokyo's Haneda Airport, were also far busier than last year. All Nippon Airways (ANA) said domestic flight bookings jumped 7½ times this year over the holiday period last year. Train operators said seat reservations on the shinkansen bullet train were 2½ times that of the holiday period last year.

Tokyo registered 1,027 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, the first time the caseload has exceeded 1,000 since Jan 28. Osaka, the epicentre of the fourth wave, logged 1,171 new cases. At least three prefectures - Aichi, Akita and Ishikawa - also set new highs on Thursday.

Yet, Japan's inoculation campaign has been sluggish. Cabinet Office figures show that as at Tuesday (April 27), just over 3.2 million doses have been administered - 3.1 million going to healthcare workers and 100,000 to the elderly.

Only 950,000 people - all medical professionals - have received two doses and are fully vaccinated.

This means that out of Japan's overall population of 125.4 million, only 1.8 per cent have received at least their first dose. Just 0.76 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Japan stands in stark contrast to overseas governments that are "sharing timely information on vaccine safety issues (in) implementing swift vaccination programmes and seeing success in controlling the number of Covid-19 cases", the proposal said.

The inoculation campaign began in February but has been bedevilled by a host of problems such as an early shortage of doses, a lack of inoculation centres and a chronic shortage of medical staff.

The government recently enlisted dentists and military medics to assist with inoculations.

By the Cabinet Office schedule, Japan should have imported enough vials of the Pfizer vaccine for almost 17 million doses by the end of April. This means that, barring any supply delays, only about one-fifth of the doses have been used.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also promised last week that all seniors who wish to be vaccinated will be fully inoculated by the end of July.

But Japan has an elderly population of 36.2 million people and as the Jane proposal pointed out: "A simple calculation reveals that in order to achieve this, some 800,000 vaccines will need to be administered per day."

Japan is currently administering vaccines at an average rate of fewer than 200,000 doses a day.

The proposal urged a "fundamental revision" of vaccination roll-out plans by leveraging private-sector expertise to develop supply chain management systems, and making vaccine application procedures more accessible.

"Avoid focusing exclusively on the physical distribution of vouchers as a prerequisite to vaccination," the proposal said, calling for simpler application procedures by telephone and online. It added that carparks and large-scale facilities should be converted into inoculation sites.

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