Panel OK’s Easing COVID-19 Legal Designation to Category V

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A subcommittee meeting of the Health Science Council held on Friday in Tokyo

May 8 has been officially set as the date on which the status of COVID-19 will be reduced from the current “equivalent to Category II” to “Category V,” the same level as seasonal flu, under the Infectious Diseases Law, it was decided Friday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced the decision at an evening meeting of the Novel Coronavirus Response Headquarters.

The infectious disease subcommittee of the Health Science Council, an advisory body to the health, labor and welfare minister, had approved the government’s plan earlier in the day.

Akifumi Imamura of Tokyo Metropolitan Cancer and Infectious Diseases Center Komagome Hospital said: “The [highly infectious] virus will remain the same. It is important to proceed with the revision while protecting the public’s health, and a three-month preparation period is necessary to take necessary infection control measures and establish a medical system.”

A senior official in charge of public medical care insurance in a municipality in Shiga Prefecture said: “Residents are facing difficulties due to soaring prices and other factors. I hope people are not discouraged from seeking medical care by reduced public funding for medical expenses.”

The government believes that a certain period of time is needed for medical facilities and local governments to prepare and inform the public. It has decided that the revision to Category V should be implemented after the Golden Week holiday period from late April to early May to prevent the spread of infections during a time when heavy travel means greater contact opportunities.

After the revision of COVID-19’s status to Category V, it will no longer be possible for authorities to take measures under the Infectious Diseases Law, such as recommending hospitalization or requesting home treatment for infected persons.

Fever patients have been treated primarily at clinics designated by prefectural governments for such patients, but after the transition, a system will be established to allow patients to be treated at a wide range of medical institutions.

After the revision, the law on special measures for new types of influenza will no longer be applied to COVID-19 cases. Under the law, restrictions on restaurant businesses, requests for not going out, and restrictions on events based on states of emergency and quasi-emergency priority measures to prevent the spread of infections will have no legal basis.

The government was also set to decide on relaxing the capacity limits for professional sports and large-scale events at the response headquarters meeting on Friday. Currently, the maximum capacity limit is 50% for events with “loud voices” such as cheering, but the limit was to be removed starting the same day.

Mask-wearing policy was also targeted for revision. The government currently recommends that people wear masks indoors except when they can maintain a distance of at least 2 meters from other people and when they are not talking to each other much. In light of the revision to Category V, the government will not call for uniform mask use indoors, but will leave it up to individual judgment.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi said at a party meeting on Friday that Kishida had called him on Thursday and told him that specific guidelines for wearing masks would be determined closer to May 8.

At the same time, the government will work to improve the medical care system so that elderly people at risk of serious illness from the coronavirus can continue to receive appropriate medical services. Even after the revision to Category V, the government plans to continue public funding of COVID-19 medical expenses and vaccinations for the time being, and then gradually reduce public funding. The government aims to develop specific timelines for how long public funding should be continued.