Govt to offer free virus tests in areas with spread of omicron variant

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida heads for a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Thursday.

The government plans to offer free PCR and antigen tests to all who request them in prefectures where the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is likely to spread. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida referred to the plan as a measure to counter a possible sixth wave of infections in a speech in Tokyo on Thursday afternoon.

The government envisages the free tests will be available in Osaka Prefecture, where the nation’s first community transmission of the variant was confirmed Wednesday, and Okinawa Prefecture, where cluster infections involving the variant have been reported on a U.S. military base. Kishida also cited Kyoto Prefecture, where an apparent case of community transmission was reported Thursday.

“Concerns are growing,” Kishida said in the speech.

If omicron cases are confirmed in other prefectures, free virus tests are likely to be carried out there if their governors ask the central government to take that step, according to government sources.

The omicron variant is said to be more contagious than the delta variant, which was first detected in India. “It’s necessary to identify people infected [with the variant] by expanding testing,” a government source said.

Currently, PCR tests and other coronavirus tests are given for free when doctors or public health centers deem the testing necessary for people such as those who have a fever or who had close contact with infected people. But people have to pay if they take the tests on their own initiative.

In a supplementary budget for fiscal 2021, which was passed in the Diet on Monday, the government included the cost of making testing free if requested by prefectural governors. The free testing is to cover people who cannot receive vaccines for reasons such as their physical condition and also children under 12. The envisaged measure is expected to be covered under this budget.

“We intend to strengthen the process of prevention, testing and early treatment by using the extra time that border-control measures have afforded us,” Kishida said during a meeting in Tokyo on Thursday morning.