• Kyodo

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Japan will now allow elderly people nationwide to book coronavirus vaccinations at state-run mass vaccination centers in Tokyo and Osaka, the government said Thursday.

The move to expand the target areas from seven prefectures in the Tokyo and Kansai areas comes as part of efforts to accelerate the country’s inoculation drive. Many slots still remain vacant at the large-scale sites.

The development comes after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday he aims to finish vaccinating Japan’s population against COVID-19 by November.

The government is planning to keep the venues open beyond the initially-set end date of late August to achieve that end, with the Tokyo venue already set for an extension.

To fill the vacant slots, the government will start accepting reservation requests over the phone from 7 a.m. Saturday as well, the Defense Ministry said. The venues run by Self-Defense Forces personnel currently accept bookings from Tokyo, Osaka and neighboring prefectures.

Currently, the venues only accept online reservations via the ministry’s website and the Line messaging app.

“Vaccinations are a decisive measure against infectious diseases,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the top government spokesman, said at a press conference.

When asked about how the system can be expanded at a time when Tokyo, Osaka and other parts of the country are currently under a state of emergency and the public is urged to refrain from traveling across prefectures, he said “proper anti-virus measures will be taken.”

At the Tokyo center, about 113,000 of the 140,000 vaccination slots for next Monday through June 27 were unfilled as of Thursday morning, while about 48,000 of the 70,000 slots remained open at the Osaka center, according to the ministry.

The two venues offer a maximum of 10,000 and 5,000 jabs per day, respectively.

Slots at the two large-scale centers on May 24 were initially filled quickly but the booking pace has slowed of late.

The government will also consider having officials of the National Police Agency, Fire and Disaster Management Agency and Japan Coast Guard fill the vacant slots, the sources said.

Currently, elderly people living in the capital and the neighboring prefectures of Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa, as well as in Osaka and nearby Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures, are eligible for inoculations at the centers.

Japan aims to complete the vaccination of those aged 65 or older, as well those turning 65 this fiscal year, by the end of July, but the country’s vaccination effort is lagging far behind other developed countries such as Britain and the United States.

About 4 percent of Japan’s population of 125 million had been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.

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