Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged Friday to downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 this spring to a Class 5 disease, the same level as seasonal influenza, a move that would lead to a major shift in the pandemic restrictions that have been in place for around three years.
In Japan, COVID-19 is currently categorized as "equivalent to Class 2" and is subject to extensive steps, such as limitations on the movements of infected people and their close contacts. The measures are stricter than those against Class 2 infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
The possible downgrade, which a government source said may come in late April, would mark a major 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 quarantining.
After instructing relevant ministers to promote preparations for the reclassification in the spring, Kishida told reporters that his administration will also review the rules on the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Kishida said the government will "gradually" change the measures in place to deal with the pandemic so Japan can return to normal, indicating that medical and financial support covered by taxpayers' money could be trimmed.
Ken Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, praised Kishida's decision on Friday, saying that accelerating social activities while coexisting with the novel coronavirus is the "best economic policy."
The prime minister, meanwhile, said the government would continue its vaccination program even after downgrading the disease's categorization.
Following Kishida's announcement, Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki told a news conference that his ministry would consider reallocating public funds for health care.
Kishida did not provide an exact date for the lowering of the classification, saying only that the government intends to determine the timing "as soon as possible." It is expected to decide on the schedule after consulting with health ministry experts.
Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference that the Kishida administration will review border controls on visitors to Japan as the disease category of COVID-19 is set to be downgraded.
Nevertheless, Matsuno expressed reluctance to lift entry restrictions against China, where the number of infections has exploded after the Asian nation drastically eased its stringent "zero-COVID" policy involving lockdowns and quarantines.
Japan will discuss how to respond to travelers from China, monitoring its neighbor's infection situation, the top government spokesman added.
Japan has lagged behind other industrialized economies in relaxing COVID-19 constraints against a backdrop of lingering fears about soaring infections.
In Britain, regulations and border controls aimed at containing the novel coronavirus have been removed completely, with restrictions in England lifted in February 2022. The United States, in which many people walk outside without wearing face masks, has ended most COVID-19 restrictions.
In South Korea, where citizens customarily wear protective face masks as in Japan, the government plans to soon lift the mask mandate for most indoor spaces.
In Japan, by downgrading the legal status to Class 5 under the infectious disease law, 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.
The government would also stop paying the medical costs for treating and hospitalizing infected people.
COVID-19 patients would then be able to receive medical treatment in ordinary hospitals rather than the currently designated medical facilities.
If COVID-19 is downgraded, the Kishida administration would only receive data on cases from designated medical facilities, as with seasonal influenza, to grasp infection trends.
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 record daily deaths reported.
The government, however, is leaning toward downgrading the status of COVID-19 as the disease has become less deadly due partly to the vaccination program, with calls growing to invigorate the economy hit hard by the virus outbreak.
Some medical experts are concerned that the envisioned reclassification could encourage people to become less vigilant and increase the numbers of cases and deaths, as the transmissibility of the virus is unlikely to decline.
In step with the planned downgrade, the Japanese government may drop its recommendation for the wearing of face masks indoors. It already suggests that people not wear them outdoors, but most people continue to do so.
An expert panel under the health ministry urged the administration last week to take a "gradual" approach to a downgrading of COVID-19, while maintaining measures against coronavirus to ensure adequate medical care.
(Tomoyuki Tachikawa contributed to this story.)