• Kyodo

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A city in Aichi Prefecture admitted Tuesday it initially gave a pharmacy chain chief and his wife priority for a COVID-19 vaccination, in a revelation likely to anger older people struggling to make reservations amid the slow vaccine rollout.

Yoshihide Kondo, deputy mayor of Nishio in Aichi Prefecture, apologized at a news conference Tuesday for the “lack of fairness” and said the city has already canceled the reservations for Sugi Holdings Co. Chairman Hirokazu Sugiura, 70, and his 67-year-old wife.

In what would have been special treatment, Sugiura and his wife had been scheduled to receive their first shots on Monday, but the city canceled their bookings after a local newspaper made an inquiry into the matter. The drug store chain operates in many regions of the country.

Japan started inoculating people age 65 or older on April 12, but the slow vaccine rollout has triggered confusion at many municipalities in charge of the vaccination campaign. Both telephone lines and websites to make reservations have been overwhelmed with traffic, with both becoming unreachable in some cases.

According to Kondo and other city officials, Sugi Holdings made repeated requests in April for the chairman and his wife to be given priority in receiving jabs. The couple lives in Nishio, while the company is headquartered in Obu in Aichi Prefecture.

The Nishio Municipal Government started taking reservations last Thursday for vaccinations for its older residents. Bookings must be made by phone or through its website or the Line messaging app.

Although a city government section in charge of inoculation rejected Sugi Holdings’ requests, the deputy mayor and the top official overseeing the vaccination program eventually decided to accept them and secured access without requiring the couple to book through conventional means.

Nishio has a partnership with Sugi Holdings over efforts to improve the health of older residents. “As the company has supported the municipal government, I was wondering if we could return the favor some way. So we couldn’t firmly reject its strong request” for prioritization of the couple, Kondo said at the news conference.

Nishio Mayor Ken Nakamura also apologized at the same event for “severely hurting public trust.”

Meanwhile, a Sugi Holdings official said on Tuesday, “We are not aware of having made the requests for a favor, but are now investigating the facts.”

Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the country’s vaccination efforts, criticized the Nishio Municipal Government, saying at a news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday that it had made “a completely unnecessary response” to the request.

Of about 36 million older people in Japan, only some 240,000 had received the first of two shots as of last Thursday, according to government data. Japan aims to inoculate all older people by the end of July amid a fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

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