The government is considering lowering the classification of COVID-19 under the Infectious Diseases Control Law around the Golden Week holiday period in early May.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida might be hoping to show people in Japan and overseas that the country has overcome the coronavirus pandemic ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima on May 19-21.
If dangerous mutant variants become prevalent before the status change, the government plans to postpone the reclassification.
COVID-19 is currently classified as a disease "equivalent to Category II" under the law. The government plans to lower it to Category V, which includes seasonal flu.
According to government sources, no decision was made about the timing of the transition at the end of last year because of concerns that the infection situation could worsen during the New Year holiday period and the risk of dangerous variants entering the country from China, where the infection is spreading rapidly.
The average daily number of infections in the week ending Jan. 20 was about 104,000, down by 36% from the previous week. According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the fall in case numbers is expected to continue.
Although the number of COVID-related fatalities is increasing, the ministry believes the rate will start to fall in line with the decrease in coronavirus cases.
No influx of mutant variants from China has been confirmed so far.
Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato and others have said the infection situation is not a problem at the moment.
The government also plans to revise border control measures.
"In line with the change in the status under the Infectious Disease Control Law, we will also review the nature of the border control measures," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference on Friday.
If COVID-19 is downgraded, measures such as quarantines and related restrictions will not be enforceable by law.
The ministry also intends to review border measures that have been strengthened since the end of last year for people entering the country from China. "We'll respond flexibly to the infection situation in China," Matsuno said.
If new variants become prevalent overseas, the government plans to re-tighten border measures. There is also an idea within the government to add COVID-19 to the list of infectious diseases for which quarantining is necessary.
Expert urges vigilance
A virology expert has called for vigilance against new coronavirus variants ahead of the downgrading of COVID-19 under the Infectious Diseases Control Law.
When the number of infections increases, the speed of virus mutation also increases, raising the risk of the emergence of variants that are more severe than the mainstream omicron variant.
New omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 is spreading rapidly in the United States, and it has also been confirmed in Japan.
Tetsuya Mizutani, a professor of virology at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, said, "It's important to maintain vigilance in preparation for the next outbreak."
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