By Sakura Murakami, Rocky Swift and Linda Sieg
TOKYO (Reuters) -Japanese medical experts said on Friday that banning spectators at the Olympics was the least risky option for holding the Games, even as they appeared resigned to the possibility of fans in venues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government and Tokyo 2020 organisers have for months held off deciding whether domestic spectators will be allowed - overseas fans are already banned - underscoring their desire to salvage the event amid deep public opposition.
Japan has avoided the kind of explosive coronavirus outbreaks that crippled many other countries. But the vaccine roll-out has been slow and the medical system pushed to the brink in parts of the country. The government's drive to hold the Games has been criticised by hospitals and doctors' unions.
"There is a risk the movement of people and opportunities to interact during the Olympics will spread infections and strain the medical system," the experts, led by top health adviser Shigeru Omi, said in a report issued on Friday.
They said that holding the Games without spectators was the "least risky" option and the desirable one.
Yet Omi's experts have already floated the possibility that venues could hold up to 10,000 fans in areas where "quasi-emergency" measures, such as shorter restaurant hours, have been lifted. That has heightened the perception the Games may well be held with spectators.
The final decision is expected at a meeting set for Monday between organisers, including Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee, and representatives from the national and Tokyo governments.
The president of Tokyo 2020, Seiko Hashimoto, said that while she accepted the Olympics would be safer without spectators, organisers were still looking for ways to have fans safely in venues, like other events.
"Given that other sports events are being held with spectators, I think it's also Tokyo 2020's job to continue to look for ways to understand and lessen the risk of infections at the Olympics until we've exhausted all the possibilities," she told a news conference following the release of Omi's report.
The Games were delayed last year as the pandemic raged. Cancellation would be costly for organisers, the Tokyo government, sponsors and insurers.
Some 41% of people want the Games cancelled, according to a Jiji news poll released on Friday. If the Games go ahead, 64% of the public want them without spectators, the poll found.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government decided on Thursday to end emergency coronavirus curbs in nine prefectures including Tokyo while keeping some "quasi-emergency" restrictions.
Tokyo is scheduled to be under such restrictions until July 11. The current state of emergency, the third since April last year, expires on June 20.
The lifting of previous emergencies has been followed by increased infections and strains on hospitals.
Organisers should be prepared to act swiftly to ban spectators or declare another state of emergency if needed, the experts said. If spectators are allowed, rules should be strict, such as limiting fans to local residents, the experts said.
Omi, a former World Health Organization official, has become increasingly outspoken about the risks from the event. He told parliament this month it was "not normal" to hold the Games during a pandemic.
Other Japanese health experts and medical organisation have been much more vocal, calling for the Games to be cancelled outright.
One of the signatories of Omi's recommendations, Kyoto University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, said he believed cancelling the Games would be best, but the decision was for the government and organisers.
"If the epidemic situation worsened, no spectators and cancelling the Games in the middle (of the event) should be debated," he told Reuters.
The country has recorded more than 776,000 cases and over 14,200 deaths, while just 15% of its population has had at least one COVID-19 vaccination.
(Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Writing by Linda Sieg and David Dolan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel and Giles Elgood)