TOKYO: Japan on Monday downgraded COVID-19 to a lower-risk infectious disease category that includes seasonal influenza, a milestone toward the full reopening of the country’s economy and society after more than three years of public health crisis.
The move by Japan coincided with the World Health Organization’s announcement on Friday of the end of the COVID-19 global health emergency.
The country lowered the status of COVID-19 from Category II to Category V under the infectious diseases control law, lifting restrictions on the movement of those infected with the coronavirus and their close contacts.
The health ministry still asks COVID-19 patients to refrain from going out for five days after infection and to wear a mask for 10 days. COVID-19 tests and treatments are no longer fully subsidized.
The country already eased mask-wearing rules on March 13, leaving the decision to wear a mask both indoors and outdoors up to the individual. Mask-wearing continues to be recommended for visitors to hospitals and elderly care facilities.
“We will shift to a stance of respecting personal choice and laying weight on people’s voluntary efforts,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told a press conference on Monday.
“Even though the classification of COVID-19 has changed, there are no immediate changes in the characteristics of the coronavirus” responsible for the disease, he warned, calling on people to keep implementing infection prevention measures.
In the country, the number of medical institutions that can treat COVID-19 patients will increase. The government plans to create a system that allows up to around 58,000 COVID-19 inpatients to be accepted at 8,300 facilities, while increasing the number of medical facilities offering outpatient services by about 20,000 to around 64,000.
Authorities will no longer release daily COVID-19 case numbers, but will instead release infection data once a week.
The first COVID-19 case in Japan was confirmed in January 2020, and the country has since experienced eight waves of infection. About 33.79 million people had been infected and 74,654 people had died as of Saturday, according to the ministry.
The government has declared a COVID-19 state of emergency four times, a measure that authorizes restrictions on operations at bars and restaurants and on events.
The restrictions have hurt the Japanese economy, while encouraging new lifestyles including remote working.