Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that he has instructed health ministry experts to promote discussions on a possible downgrade of the legal status of the novel coronavirus to the same level as seasonal influenza this spring.
In Japan, COVID-19 is currently categorized as a Class 2 disease, the same status as tuberculosis and avian influenza, and is subject to extensive measures, including limitations on the movements of infected people and their close contacts.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks to reporters at his office in Tokyo on Jan. 20, 2023. (Kyodo)
The change would be a big turning point toward the normalization of social and economic activities in the country, and would probably result in foreigners being able to enter Japan without PCR tests or quarantine.
Kishida also told reporters on Friday that his administration will review the rules on the wearing of face masks and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The prime minister added that the government plans to continue its vaccination program even after downgrading the disease’s categorization.
By downgrading COVID-19 to Class 5 under the infectious disease law, the Kishida administration could ease restrictions and reduce medical support for patients.
The quarantine period of seven days for people infected with the virus and of five days for people who have been in close contact with a COVID-19 patient would be scrapped, and the government would stop paying the medical costs for treating and hospitalizing patients.
COVID-19 patients would then be able to receive medical treatment in ordinary hospitals rather than the current designated medical facilities.
If COVID-19 is categorized to the lower class, the Kishida administration would only receive data on cases from designated medical facilities, as with seasonal influenza, to grasp the infection trend.
Even if the number of infections spikes again in the future, no control measures, including state of emergency declarations, would be imposed.
With the country witnessing its eighth wave of infections, the daily tally of cases has remained high, occasionally topping 200,000, with a record number of deaths reported per day.
But the government is leaning toward downgrading the status of COVID-19 as the disease has become less deadly, with calls growing to invigorate the economy hit hard by the virus outbreak.
In step with the planned downgrade the Japanese administration may drop its recommendation for the wearing of face masks indoors.
The government already suggests that people not wear face masks outdoors, but the majority in Japan continue to do so.
An expert panel under the health ministry urged the administration last week to take a “gradual” approach to a downgrading COVID-19, while maintaining coronavirus measures to ensure adequate medical care.