Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gave the nod Friday for the classification of COVID-19 to be lowered in spring to Category V, which includes seasonal influenza.
The level is currently set at a disease "equivalent to Category II."
Kishida has instructed Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato and other relevant ministers to carry out necessary procedures.
With various restrictions and measures set to be reviewed, the move marks a major milestone in the coronavirus pandemic, amid efforts to get society back to normal.
Kishida discussed the infection situation with Kato and Shigeyuki Goto, the economic revitalization minister, among others, on Friday morning at the Prime Minister's Office.
Kishida's decision might have been based on such factors as the lower number of COVID fatalities in last year's seventh wave compared to previous waves and the fact that the number of infections in the eighth wave has been on a downward trend.
"We'll ask experts to begin discussions on removing the novel coronavirus from the category for 'new types of influenza and other infectious diseases' and making it a Category V infectious disease this spring in principle," Kishida told reporters after the discussion.
When the category has been changed, Kishida said he would aim to relax in stages infection control measures such as mask-wearing guidelines.
The prime minister vowed to continue efforts to ensure society can function "with COVID-19" so that life can return to normal.
The Infectious Disease Control Law has classifications from Category I to V in descending order of risk, with a separate slot stipulated for COVID-19 and new types of influenza.
Once the disease is lowered to Category V, there will not be a legal basis for restrictions on the business operations of restaurants and other establishments or requests for patients to recuperate at home, among other measures.
Currently, COVID patients' medical expenses are fully covered by public funds.
Patients have to foot the bill for treatment of Category V diseases. However, due to concerns people may be reluctant to seek treatment after the classification change and the fact that some coronavirus drugs are expensive, the government intends to continue covering medical expenses for COVID-19 using public funds before gradually phasing the measure out.
The government will also consider a system under which patients would have to pay for vaccinations, which are currently administered free of charge.
Only medical institutions designated by prefectures as fever outpatient facilities currently accept COVID patients. Lowering the disease to Category V will enable other medical institutions to treat such patients.
While the measure will likely ease the strain on medical services, there is concern that it will be difficult to find beds for COVID patients if hospitals are filled with patients with other diseases.
To mitigate the risk, the government will consider establishing a system to provide adequate medical care to the elderly and other people at a higher risk of becoming severely ill even after lowering COVID to Category V.
Kato will consult with the infectious diseases subcommittee of the Health Sciences Council about lowering the category as early as next week.
Read more from The Japan News at https://japannews.yomiuri.co.jp/