Japan formally decided Friday to downgrade the legal status of the novel coronavirus on May 8 to the same category as common infectious diseases, such as seasonal influenza, to ease COVID-19 prevention rules, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.
In a major policy shift in its response to the three-year-long pandemic, the Japanese government would be able to relax existing intensive COVID-19 measures, including limiting the movements of infected people and their close contacts.
The reclassification of COVID-19 to Class 5 came after a panel of experts under the health ministry agreed on the plan earlier in the day.
The imminent downgrade would pave the way for a normalization of social and economic activities in Japan, possibly enabling non-residents to enter the country without PCR tests or quarantining.
In Japan, COVID-19 is currently designated as a special category equivalent to or stricter than Class 2, which covers infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, under the law.
The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Japan in January 2020, after the virus was detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Kishida said his administration plans to continue shouldering medical costs, including its vaccination program, for the time being and will gradually review the ongoing medical service system.
While Kishida, who took office in October 2021, has been keen to revise rules on wearing protective face masks, he said that mask-wearing, indoors or outdoors, would be left to individuals.
There has never been a mask mandate in Japan, but mask-wearing has become a daily custom among citizens for around three years.
Since May 2022, the government has been proposing that face masks be taken off in certain circumstances, but even during the harsh summer months last year, many Japanese people wore masks almost everywhere.
"We will take necessary steps to curb the spread of COVID-19 so that we can return to normal life at home, school and work, and in all areas of the community," Kishida said.
The scheduled date of May 8 is the first business day after the end of Japan's Golden Week holidays this year. It is about 10 days before Japan hosts the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima for three days through May 21.
Kishida has set that date to avoid difficulties at hospitals in case the number of COVID-19 cases surges again during the holiday season when they operate with fewer than usual staff members, government sources said.
Japan has lagged behind other industrialized economies in relaxing COVID-19 restrictions against a backdrop of lingering fears about soaring infections.
Once COVID-19 is downgraded to Class 5, the quarantine period of seven days for people infected with the virus and five days for those who have been in close contact with an infectious patient will be scrapped.
If the plans go ahead, COVID-19 patients will also receive medical treatment in ordinary hospitals instead of designated facilities, and the government will stop paying costs for hospitalization and care of infected people down the road.
In March, the Kishida administration will decide how much funding the government will provide for the treatment of COVID-19 patients and how long such funding will continue, the premier said.
State of emergency or quasi-state of emergency declarations, meanwhile, will not be imposed, even if the number of infections spikes again in the future.
Japan is in the midst of its eighth wave of infections, but the government will downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 as the vaccination program, among other factors, has made the disease less deadly amid increasing calls to rejuvenate the economy hit hard by the outbreak.