Japan seeks to decide by end of March on whether to lower COVID classification

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The government will seek to decide by the end of March whether to lower the official classification of COVID-19, which would change how the virus is handled, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed in a meeting with health minister Katsunobu Kato and economic revitalization minister Shigeyuki Goto.

Kishida and the two ministers also agreed to accelerate discussions on this subject from the beginning of next year.

The government has been considering lowering COVID-19’s classification under the Infectious Diseases Control Law from the current equivalent of Category II, the second most severe category, to the Category V level, the same ranking as seasonal influenza. To that end, it has been consulting with experts on a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry advisory panel.

“Based on the opinions we’ve received, we want to proceed with more concrete discussions,” Kato said at a Wednesday meeting of the panel.

Lowering the classification to Category V would remove the basis for the government covering of the out-of-pocket portion of medical expenses, and for the issuance of recommendations or orders for hospitalization. According to government sources, Kishida and the two ministers discussed issues related to lowering the classification at the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday, including the coverage of medical expenses and the vaccination system.

The government is also considering lowering the classification to Category V while continuing the public funding of medical and vaccination expenses, and possibly phasing this support out gradually.

Current COVID-related policies such as public funding of outpatient treatment and preferential measures related to the fees charged by outpatient fever clinics are in place until the end of March. The government therefore plans to make a decision by March at the latest.

However, infections continue to spread nationwide amid the eighth wave of the pandemic. There are concerns over a simultaneous outbreak of seasonal influenza, and also an influx of the virus from China, where the number of COVID cases is rising rapidly.

Therefore, the decision to lower the classification level is expected to be made after the eighth wave has subsided. If the situation worsens, lowering the classification could be delayed beyond next spring.

The Infectious Diseases Control Law classifies infectious diseases from Category I to Category V based on their level of risk. There is also a category for “new types of influenza and other infectious diseases,” which includes COVID-19, and it has been treated as the equivalent of Category II.