PCR tests to be available free for asymptomatic people

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
People line up at a PCR testing site in Minato Ward, Tokyo, in July.

The government plans to provide free PCR and antigen tests for asymptomatic people, in order to be ready for a possible “sixth wave” of coronavirus infections, according to several sources.

It also plans to ask prefectural governments to arrange places — such as hotels or makeshift facilities — for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms to stay while receiving medical treatment if there is another surge of the virus. Through these methods, the government is striving to identify infections at an early stage and prevent patients’ condition from becoming serious.

The government intends to include these policies in its comprehensive measures against a sixth wave, which will be decided at a task force meeting on Friday.

Currently, PCR and other tests are administered free of charge when doctors or public health centers deem them necessary based on a person’s symptoms, including fever, or in situations including close contact with COVID-19 patients. However, people who are tested at their own request must pay for it.

To drastically boost testing volume at times when infections are increasing, the government plans to allow prefectural governments to test asymptomatic people for free at sites designated by those authorities.

The free tests will also be administered to people who cannot get vaccinated due to their physical condition and to children under 12, under the so-called vaccine and test package, a government initiative to enable more people to go out by presenting proof of vaccination.

Vaccines have been provided at public expense, thus the government has decided testing should be offered in the same way so that unvaccinated people are treated fairly.

During the fifth wave of infections this summer, which saw a record number of patients, many people were forced to wait at home for medical treatment, and their condition deteriorated as a result. Drawing on the lessons from that experience, the government will ask prefectural governments to prepare facilities where anyone with mild symptoms can stay if they wish.

In addition to hotels, the government plans to allow local governments to set up prefabricated facilities that can be built quickly in the event of an outbreak. Doctors and nurses will be stationed at those facilities, and pulse oximeters used to monitor changes in people’s physical condition.

Regarding the vaccine booster shots scheduled from December, the government plans to allow them to also be administered at workplaces.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida explained the framework of measures against the sixth wave to relevant ministers during a task force meeting on Oct. 15 and directed them to compile a comprehensive overview in coordination with prefectural governments.

The government will aim to achieve a balance between COVID-19 control and economic activities even if the virus spreads again in the future.

Easing restrictions on people’s activities through the vaccine and test package, which was proposed in late September, will be stipulated in the government’s basic policies for controlling the novel coronavirus. As a result, even under a state of emergency, restaurants and bars will be allowed to stay open until 9 p.m. and can serve alcohol beverages. Events will also be allowed to take place at 100% capacity, as long as they meet certain conditions.

“We have decided there is no problem with thoroughly easing restrictions, based on the results we obtained from our trials of the vaccine and test package,” a senior Cabinet Secretariat official said.