Minister admits coercing Olympics app developers into cutting costs

Digitalization minister Takuya Hirai admitted Friday he instructed officials to coerce the developer of a smartphone app for monitoring the health of foreign visitors during the Tokyo Games into cutting costs, by threatening to withhold future government contracts.

Hirai was reported to have told senior officials in the Cabinet Secretariat that were overseeing the app project in April that they “would be better off threatening” the joint venture developing the app in order to achieve cost reductions. The venture partners include major Japanese information technology firm NEC Corp.

“I have a strong determination to eliminate wasteful spending as a person entrusted with taxpayers’ money. But my comments were inappropriate, and I would like to be careful from now on,” Hirai said at a news conference.

Earlier this month, Hirai said the cost of developing and operating the app had been halved to ¥3.8 billion from the originally estimated ¥7.32 billion by paring down functions following a decision to bar spectators from abroad.

The huge initial cost of the project had attracted criticism at the Diet.

On Friday, some media outlets released an audio recording of Hirai saying at a meeting he would “never place an order with NEC” or would sideline NEC if it complained about the app development costs.

NEC said, “It is a fact that a joint venture including our company agreed to alter a contract in view of the government’s stance,” but declined to elaborate on the issue.

The app will enable foreign athletes as well as others permitted entry for the games, such as Olympic officials and media, to make reports about their health, but will not be equipped with some earlier planned functions such as recognizing visitors’ faces and tracing their locations using GPS.

After the games, the government plans to revamp the app in a bid to make it usable for foreign visitors to monitor their health.

Japanese organizers and the International Olympic Committee agreed in March not to allow spectators from overseas.

Organizers have been seeking to prevent the Tokyo Olympics — set to open in late July — and the subsequent Paralympics from turning into a global superspreader event amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tokyo Organising Committee has said the number of overseas officials and workers at the games will be reduced to at least 78,000, less than half the initial figure.

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