TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday announced plans to downgrade the legal status of COVID-19 to the equivalent of seasonal influenza in the spring, a move that would further relax mask wearing and other preventive measures as the country seeks to return to normalcy.
Kishida said he has instructed experts and government officials to discuss the details on lowering COVID-19's status. A change would also remove self-isolation rules and other anti-virus requirements and allow COVID-19 patients to seek treatment at any hospital instead of only specialized facilities.
"In order to return to our ordinary daily life in Japan while pursuing measures to adapt to living with the coronavirus, we will study concrete measures to gradually move on to a next step," Kishida said.
In Japan, COVID-19 is currently categorized as a Class 2 disease, along with SARS and tuberculosis, and is subject to restricting movements of patients and their close contacts, while allowing central and local governments to issue emergency measures. Downgrading it to Class 5 would mean scrapping those rules.
The planned change would mark a major turning point in Japan's COVID-19 policy toward normalizing social and economic activities.
The move, however, comes as Japan faces widespread infections and record levels of deaths in what is considered its eighth wave of outbreak since the pandemic began three years ago.
According to the Health Ministry, daily deaths totaled a record high of 503 Jan. 14. Experts say the latest increase could be linked to worsening chronic illnesses among older patients.
Downgrading the legal status of COVID-19 under the infectious disease law could remove ongoing hospitalization and self-isolation rules and help to free up hospital beds reserved for COVID-19 patients, Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
The idea is to create a system where COVID-19 can be treated as part of ordinary medical services, he said. But he cautioned: "Changing its classification doesn't mean coronavirus is gone. We still need everyone to take voluntary measures by using masks and precautions."
Kato said mask wearing is unnecessary outdoors now and that indoor use would also be eased once the downgrade is in place.
Kato said it will require some adjustments for people, workplaces, municipalities and hospitals, and declined to set an exact timeline, other than to say it would occur in "the spring."
Details are still being worked out but the cost of COVID-19 treatments and vaccinations are expected to still be covered by the government for now.
Japan last fall stopped requiring COVID-19 tests for entrants who had at least three shots -- part of the country's careful easing of measures after virtually closing its borders to foreign tourists for about two years.
Japan is now reporting known daily cases of between 100,000 and 200,000.