Up to 10,000 people could be allowed to watch Olympic events in Tokyo this summer, after Japanese health experts approved plans to raise the number of spectators at sports venues.
The proposed measure would come into force after a Covid-19 state of emergency in Tokyo and other parts of the country ends on 20 June and would last until the end of August, said Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister overseeing Japan’s coronavirus response.
“It is important that we maintain thorough anti-infection measures to prevent a rebound in cases, especially as we foresee a spread of the Delta variant,” Nishimura told a government advisory panel, which endorsed the spectator cap.
Spectators are currently capped at 5,000 people or 50% of a venue’s capacity, whichever is smaller.
The Tokyo 2020 organising committee will not make a final decision on whether to allow domestic spectators to attend Olympic events until later this month, amid concerns that allowing large numbers of people to travel to venues could trigger a fifth wave of infections in Japan.
The final pronouncement on attendance will be made after taking into account the state of Covid infections and the prevalence of new variants, said the chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Katō.
Nishimura said health experts had agreed with a government plan that would permit the increase in spectators provided that no special coronavirus infection controls were in place.
Tokyo, Osaka and eight other regions are under a state of emergency that is due to end on 20 June. Bars and restaurants have been banned from selling alcohol and must close at 8pm, while people have been urged to avoid non-essential outings and companies encouraged to allow employees to work from home.
Nishimura, who doubles as the economy minister, said it was too soon to assume the measures would be lifted on Sunday given the continued pressure on hospital beds and falls in daily cases that have been less pronounced than expected.
“Now is a critical time to call on the public to suppress infections, and to take initiatives for a stable supply of hospital beds,” he said, according to Kyodo news agency. A decision on whether to lift the state of emergency could come on Thursday, media reported.
Takaji Wakita, the head of an expert panel advising the health ministry, warned of a possible surge in infections in the near future as people spend more time outside their homes in some regions, including Tokyo.
“When the government lifts the state of emergency, it’s important that restrictions are lifted gradually,” he said.
Reports suggest Japan is likely to retain some rules on restaurant opening hours and other businesses that attract large numbers of people.
Although Japan has avoided an explosive Covid outbreak of the kind seen in the UK and US, it has reported more than 772,000 cases and over 14,000 deaths – a relatively high number among east Asian countries.
In addition, its vaccine rollout lags behind other major economies, with just over 5% of the population fully inoculated so far.
With overseas sports fans already banned this summer, Japan’s government is keen to have a limited number of domestic spectators at Olympic venues to create a semblance of atmosphere.
Their presence would also be welcomed by athletes, who face a largely joyless time in Tokyo, where they must submit to regular testing and maintain social distancing, among other requirements.
On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee warned competitors who breached Covid rules would face a range of punishments, including temporary or permanent expulsion from the Games.