Japan plans to reclassify the novel coronavirus to the same category as common infectious diseases such as seasonal influenza effective May 8, government sources said Thursday.
A government task force is expected to decide Friday on the planned downgrade of COVID-19's category to Class 5, relaxing currently imposed steps, including restrictive measures and designation of hospitals for treatment, as the disease has become less deadly.
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 novel coronavirus was detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.
While saying he will "gradually" review COVID-19 restrictions, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has expressed the government's intention to shoulder all the costs for its vaccination program, for the time being, even after lowering the status of the disease, the sources said.
Kishida is keen to revise rules on wearing protective face masks, so mask-wearing will likely be left to the judgment of individuals, they added.
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 7 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 hospitalization and care costs for infected people.
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 sources 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.
Although Japan is in the midst of its eighth wave of infections, the government is considering downgrading the status of the disease as the vaccination program, among other factors, has made the disease less deadly amid increasing calls to rejuvenate the economy that was hit hard by the outbreak.
The government is also planning to lift COVID-19 regulations on events, allowing spectators to shout and cheer even when the venue is filled to capacity, sources close to the matter said Thursday.
Once made, it will be "implemented quickly," a government official said.
Currently, speaking in a loud voice is allowed at large-scale events, such as professional sports games or concerts, only when attendance is within the upper limit of 50 percent of a venue's capacity.
Attendees will be requested to continue wearing face masks.
The government had gradually been easing regulations over events, allowing events to be fully attended last March, provided people did not speak loudly and organizers put in place COVID-19 measures.