South Korea has said it will roll out tougher social distancing guidelines to curb the spread of coronavirus nationwide as it deals with a new outbreak spreading from Seoul.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) reported 315 new domestic infections as of midnight on Friday, the latest in a series of triple-digit increases in such cases.
South Korea used advanced contact tracing and widespread testing to contain its first outbreak of Covid-19, but Asia’s fourth-largest economy has experienced persistent outbreaks in recent weeks, mostly in and around the densely populated capital and its surrounding areas.
In Seoul and some surrounding cities, the government has reimposed second-tier social distancing rules, including restricting large gatherings, banning in-person church meetings, and closing nightclubs, karaoke bars, buffets and cybercafes.
The same guidelines will be imposed on other areas across the country from Sunday. In some areas with fewer infections, however, the guidelines will be recommended rather than obligatory.
On Saturday, Park Neung-hoo, the health minister, said: “If we don’t curb the spread [of the virus] in the early stages, this will grow as a large-scale wave. To us, there is nothing more important than focusing on responding to Covid-19.”
Health authorities have categorised social distancing rules in three stages – stage 1 being the least strict and stage 3 the most, where schools and businesses are urged to close.
Kwon Jun-wook, the deputy director of the KCDC, said: “If we enhance the social distancing guidelines to the third stage, it is inevitable that they will take a toll on people’s daily lives and the economy. We urge you to take the situation seriously.”
Kwon said South Korea had provided the antiviral drug remdesivir to treat 143 patients at 35 hospitals, but access to the drug has been irregular because of supply issues.
In June, South Korea asked the drugmaker Gilead Sciences to supply enough remdesivir to treat more than 5,000 Covid-19 patients in preparation for a possible second wave of infections.
The health ministry said it was postponing its decision to pursue policies boosting the number of medical students until the coronavirus situation stabilised.
Thousands of South Korean doctors have staged strikes and protests over government plans to train new doctors, saying there are enough doctors but better conditions and systems are needed to properly allocate them.