Japan's Prime Minister Kishida Fumio plans to instruct officials to study the steps needed to re-categorize COVID-19 into the same class of infectious diseases as seasonal flu. After an expert panel discusses the issue, the change could come as early as this spring.
Kishida will likely give the instruction to health minister Kato Katsunobu and other officials on Friday.
This comes as the health ministry says new infections nationwide for the seven days through Thursday are on a declining trend compared to the preceding week.
COVID-19 is now ranked at a level almost equivalent to category two -- the second-most severe tier on Japan's classification system for infectious diseases. The level allows authorities to take strict measures to prevent the spread of the disease, including urging people to limit their movements.
But in light of COVID-19's impact on socioeconomic activity, the government on Thursday decided to work toward downgrading it to category five, the lowest rank.
If COVID-19 is lowered to category five, more medical institutions can accept coronavirus patients and people will no longer be requested to limit their activities.
The expert panel will discuss what healthcare services and preventive measures should be prepared for the reclassification.
Patients will also need to shoulder fees for testing, hospitalization and other procedures if COVID-19 is lowered to the level of the flu. But the government is expected to continue covering the costs for the time being at the request of the Japan Medical Association.
The government will solicit opinions from experts and decide whether to drop its current recommendation that people wear masks indoors.