Photo/Illutration A typical Tokyo street scene as commuters head to work (Takuya Isayama)

The government will downgrade COVID-19 to the same level as seasonal flu from May 8 but likely retain other measures, such as using public funds to pay for vaccinations, at least for a while longer, sources said.

A formal decision on the change will be made Jan. 27, the sources added.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with health minister Katsunobu Kato and Shigeyuki Goto, the minister in charge of dealing with the pandemic, as well as other concerned parties, the previous day and decided on the change.

Originally, plans called for changing the status of COVID-19 under the infectious diseases prevention law on either April 1 or May 1. But local government authorities and health experts raised concerns that doing so while unified local elections were being held, or just prior to a series of national holidays in early May, might create confusion for the public.

As a result, May 8 was designated as D-Day.

Specific decisions on changes in paying for vaccinations and other matters in line with the changed status of COVID-19 will be made from early March, the sources said.

The government also approved lifting, with immediate effect, restrictions on audience capacity for concerts and sporting events to give fans free rein to cheer if appropriate infection precautions are in place.

A panel of experts advising the health ministry on the pandemic met Jan. 26 to offer its opinion on vaccinations for COVID-19. The majority view was that jabs in the future could be limited to once a year, just like seasonal flu.

The health ministry will make a formal decision in February about the frequency of COVID-19 jabs and who should be vaccinated. This will likely coincide with a decision on how much longer the government will pay for the vaccinations.

By downgrading COVID-19, the government will be limited in what it can do to deal with the disease.

COVID-19 is currently classified under the category of “infectious diseases such as novel influenza” in the infectious diseases prevention law. It is also a disease that the Law on Special Measures against Novel Influenza covers.

The law provides the legal basis for the central government to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency or pre-emergency measures.

If COVID-19 is downgraded to category 5, it will no longer be covered by the law, meaning that central or prefectural governments will lose the authority to take such measures.

(This article was compiled from reports by Akiyoshi Abe and Mirei Jinguji.)