Photo/Illutration Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at a lecture held in Tokyo’s Minato Ward on Dec. 23 (Pool)

The government has promised to provide free COVID-19 tests in Osaka, Kyoto and Okinawa, the three prefectures in Japan where infections of the Omicron variant have raised alarm.

“We will make free testing available for everybody who is concerned in areas where containment of the Omicron variant is needed,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said at a lecture held in Tokyo on Dec. 23.

Until now, Kishida has stated that free, drop-in testing would be available in all prefectures to those unable to receive vaccine shots.

But the Omicron variant has changed the policy.

Community infections of Omicron have been confirmed in Osaka and Kyoto prefectures, while a cluster infection has hit a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture.

Shigeru Omi, who heads the government's expert panel on the COVID-19 pandemic, told reporters the same day, “I don’t think the (Omicron variant) has crisscrossed the (country), but it has likely spread at multiple spots.”

Omi also noted that the spread of the Omicron variant has doubled the number of infected people in a short period of time in Britain and other countries.

“There is a possibility that even a strengthened health care delivery system will be overwhelmed,” Omi said.

He warned that the year-end and New Year holiday season is the period “when infections can spread most easily” because so many people take trips to their hometowns and join parties and other celebrations.

“I want people to carefully take the Omicron variant into account when planning to travel and return to their hometowns,” Omi said.

(This article was written by Kohei Morioka and Tomoya Takaki.)