In a significant policy turnaround, the health ministry announced Thursday that those age 80 or older will be able to disembark the Diamond Princess if they test negative for COVID-19.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato said such individuals will be allowed to leave the ship as early as Friday but will need to stay at lodgings provided by the government for the time being.

Passengers who meet the age requirement and have pre-existing conditions or are staying in rooms without functional windows will be prioritized for disembarkation.

“On the cruise ship, there are the elderly with pre-existing conditions and those who are staying inside rooms without windows having to take part in the quarantine period,” Kato said. “In those situations, as they have no choice but to stay for a long time period, there are individuals whose chronic illnesses get worse and compromise their health.”

Forty-four more — 43 passengers and one crew member — were also confirmed to have the new coronavirus Thursday. Elderly people made up a large majority of those newly infected, with 40 of the 44 being 70 or older.

The new cases bring the number of passengers and crew members infected with the virus to 218, five of whom are in serious condition. So far, 713 people have received test results.

The health minister said people in their 80s or older either have undergone or are currently being tested, in addition to those who are showing symptoms or have had close contact with those infected. There are about 200 people on board the ship who are age 80 or older.

Taking the virus’s suspected two-week incubation period for the people on the cruise ship into consideration, the government has told passengers and crew members that they won’t be permitted to get off at least until Wednesday.

Separately, a taxi driver in Tokyo and a man in Wakayama Prefecture were diagnosed with the new coronavirus, thought to have originated in Wuhan, China, sources said Thursday.

The government is investigating how they contracted the pneumonia-causing virus, the sources said.

At ports of entry, Japan will implement an ordinance enabling compulsory hospitalization or isolation for both those who are infected and those suspected of being infected before they are admitted into the country starting Friday. The authorities will also tighten immigration controls by collaborating with quarantine officers.

Additionally, the government on Thursday presented an emergency package to pre-empt the virus’s transmission within Japan and stop the economy from slipping into a downturn. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government will tap into its ¥10.3 billion reserve fund for the measures. The national expenditure will be about ¥15 billion.

The release of the emergency package aims to assuage the unease among business owners regarding a possible prolonged outbreak of COVID-19 and its potential impact on the economy.

Through the state-run Japan Finance Corp., the government will create ¥500 billion in new loans or guarantees for financially distressed small businesses, particularly hotels. A sharp drop in the number of foreign tourists — attributed to China’s ban on group travel overseas — has rattled the tourism industry.As part of the measures, the government will also offer financial aid to domestic mask manufacturers to alleviate an acute scarcity of the items.

The government has already asked the companies to beef up their domestic production and will be providing monetary support for mask manufacturers and wholesalers.

With these measures, the government hopes to have 600 million masks manufactured over a period of a month by next month.

The government will provide the subsidies to selected companies and is also considering buying a proportion of any excess inventory.

The government will also support efforts to expedite the development of vaccines, drugs and simple test kits.

By Thursday morning, all 197 Japanese citizens who returned to Japan from Wuhan on the first government-chartered flight had been cleared of the coronavirus and left their temporary lodgings.

“I appreciated the kind treatment we were shown by government officials and people at the hotel. I was able to spend my days without much stress,” said a man in his 30s from Mie Prefecture who was among the returnees. “I want to thank the local people who have encouraged us, too,” he added.

To accommodate returnees who don’t have houses in Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has said it will provide 50 units from its stock of temporary public housing for free.

Those on the second flight who tested negative were set to return to their homes as early as Thursday evening.

Information from Kyodo and Jiji Press added.

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