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Japan to lower COVID-19 to flu status

Japan 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 normality.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he had 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 specialised 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 on Friday.

In Japan, COVID-19 is categorised as a class two 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 five would mean scrapping those rules.

The planned change would mark a major turning point in Japan's COVID-19 policy towards normalising 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 since the pandemic began three years ago.

According to the health ministry, daily deaths totalled a record high of 503 last Saturday. Experts say the latest increase could be linked to worsening chronic illnesses among older patients.