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'Don't rock the boat': LDP lawmaker pressured virus expert over Olympics

Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government's COVID-19 response subcommittee, meets reporters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Aug. 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government and ruling parties "pressured" experts on the government's coronavirus task force subcommittee regarding their risk evaluation recommendations for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games drawn up in June, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    "You'd better not have your name on those recommendations," a ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker was quoted as telling one of the experts on the Advisory Board of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare over the phone in early June. Drafting of the risk assessment proposals had begun in April.

    The lawmaker continued, "It's already been decided that the Olympics will be held. I want you to avoid rocking the boat."

    The expert, recalling the conversation, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I thought, 'What in the world is this person talking about?' but I held back."

    The LDP lawmaker is versed in the health and labor fields and is close to individual experts on the Advisory Board, which is tasked with advising the health ministry on COVID-19 countermeasures.

    When the Mainichi Shimbun interviewed other experts on the board, it turned out that the same LDP lawmaker had also phoned other members, asking them questions including, "What will the content of the recommendations look like?" and, "Around when will the proposals be submitted?"

    Even though the legislator did not elaborate on what they meant by saying "rocking the boat," their calls were made shortly before the party leaders' debate in the Diet on June 9. If the expert panel's virus risk recommendations included a negative view of holding the Tokyo Olympics, they could provide ammunition for opposition parties to attack the ruling coalition over going ahead with the Games amid the pandemic.

    The same LDP lawmaker also urged the Advisory Board experts to delay submitting their virus risk assessment, saying, "I don't want the proposals to be a topic of discussion (in the Diet)," and, "I want them to be submitted when they'll have less impact."

    Behind the ruling party lawmaker's move apparently lay concerns that, if the virus risk evaluations were to put a damper on holding the Tokyo Games, it could affect the House of Representatives election slated for this autumn.

    Shigeru Omi, 72, chairman of the government's coronavirus response subcommittee, took the brunt of the pressure from the government and ruling coalition executives. On June 18, Omi, who coordinates among virus response experts, and some other specialists compiled a proposal, stating, "We are not in a position to decide on whether holding the Olympics is right or wrong, but it is our duty to objectively state the risk of infections spreading and the burden on medical services."

    While the government had planned to finalize a decision in late June to allow spectators into Olympic venues, if public opinion grew increasingly critical of the Games, the government's scenario could have fallen apart.

    A senior ruling coalition official slammed Omi, stating, "He's not doing his primary job as president (of the Japan Community Health Care Organization), is he?" -- suggesting that Omi was putting all his time into leading the COVID-19 task force subcommittee. The Japan Community Health Care Organization is an incorporated administrative agency, whose budget and operations are subject to government checks. Criticism of Omi including the ruling coalition official's comment was relayed to Advisory Board members, and was considered an attempt to shake Omi's resolve.

    Another high-ranking LDP official apparently tried to keep Omi in check, remarking, "What authority does Omi have? We must tell Nishimura," referring to the Cabinet's coronavirus response minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.

    One of the LDP lawmakers queried by the Mainichi Shimbun acknowledged that they had contacted Advisory Board experts, stating, "I just asked them what opinions they had." Regarding the move to ask experts not to get involved in the risk evaluation recommendations, the lawmaker said, "I didn't make such a request. It was up to each individual expert."

    As the lawmaker was in favor of allowing spectators into Olympic events, however, they were not convinced of the experts' views. "If done cleverly, we could have held the Games with spectators," the legislator said.

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada and Sooryeon Kim, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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