TOKYO • Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga yesterday said his government would do "everything possible" to prevent the spread of the coronavirus ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, after a ruling party official admitted cancelling the event remained an option.
"There's no change to the government's stance, to do everything possible to prevent the spread of infections as we head towards the Olympics," he said, while sidestepping a reporter's question as to whether axing the event was possible, as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai had suggested earlier.
Mr Suga was speaking to local media at the prime minister's official residence ahead of his trip to meet United States President Joe Biden.
Japan is struggling with a surge in coronavirus cases less than 100 days before the Games are due to begin.
Tokyo yesterday reported 729 Covid-19 cases - the capital's highest figure since Feb 4 - while Osaka is under a state of emergency, having breached the 1,000-case mark for the first time earlier in the week.
Japan Medical Association president Toshio Nakagawa on Wednesday called for a third nationwide state of emergency - the previous one ended last month - saying at a committee meeting of the House of Representatives the medical system is "beginning to collapse".
If Japan cannot bring their fourth wave of infections, primarily led by mutant strains, under control, and the situation remains too severe, then the Olympics must be cancelled "without hesitation", according to Mr Nikai, the LDP secretary-general.
Organisers and Olympic officials have continued to insist that Tokyo 2020 will go ahead safely, but Mr Nikai said that all options were on the table.
While he revealed that the plan was to press ahead, claiming that "we definitely want to make a success", he refused to rule out pulling the plug on the world's foremost sporting event.
Said the veteran political broker, whose support for Mr Suga was crucial to him becoming prime minister last year: "If infection spreads because of the Olympics, I don't know what the Olympics is for. We need to make a decision depending on the situation at the time. We need to cancel it without hesitation if they're no longer possible."
Mr Nikai later issued a further statement saying that while he wanted the Games "to succeed", it was "not the case that we would host the Games no matter what".
"Olympics Cancelled" was trending on Twitter in Japan with nearly 50,000 tweets from users as of yesterday afternoon, many of them supportive of the possible axing.
An opposition lawmaker with the Japanese Communist Party, Akira Koike, also tweeted in response that holding the event was "impossible" and that a swift decision on cancellation should be made.
But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike chose to interpret Nikai's comments in a different manner, saying: "I take it as a message of strong encouragement that we contain the coronavirus by all means."
The Tokyo Olympics organising committee also responded with a statement saying those involved in preparing for the Games remained fully focused on hosting them.
However, with Japan getting buffeted by Covid-19 despite quasi-emergency measures in place to slow its spread, more harsher rules may be put in place, including holding the July 23-Aug 8 Games behind closed doors, if the worst-case scenario is to be prevented.
Foreign tourists were last month barred from entering the country, but authorities were set to allow limited domestic fans to attend.
A decision will be made this month regarding the cap on crowd size but minister Taro Kono, who holds several portfolios including the head of Japan's vaccination drive, yesterday floated the chance of empty stands.
"We'll hold the Olympics in a form that is feasible," the Asahi newspaper quoted him as saying. "There might be no spectators."
The surge has already forced the Olympic torch relay off public roads in Osaka, Matsuyama, as well as in Okinawa, while the slow roll-out of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is exacerbating the problem.
Russian competitors at the Games will be wearing white, blue and red uniforms, but their tricolour flag will not appear because of doping sanctions.
Zasport, the supplier of the Russian Olympic team, on Wednesday unveiled the uniforms bearing the logo of the Russian Olympic Committee instead of the country's flag.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG