Seoul passes new law to curb Mers outbreak

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon having his blood pressure checked at a hospital that was taken off the Mers-affected list this week.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon having his blood pressure checked at a hospital that was taken off the Mers-affected list this week.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

SEOUL - South Korea has introduced a new law to curb the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) outbreak, tightening quarantine restrictions and imposing jail sentences on those who defy anti-infection measures.

Two elderly women died yesterday, bringing to 31 the total number of fatalities since the crisis began last month. Eighty-one patients have recovered.

In China, a South Korean man who was the country's only confirmed case was discharged from hospital yesterday, the health authorities said.

Under South Korea's new law, passed in Parliament late on Thursday, people infected with the virus who lie to investigators about how they came into contact with the disease will face a fine or prison.

"False testimony would entail up to two years in prison or 20 million won (S$24,200) in fines," the Health Ministry said. Under the old legislation, the fine was 2 million won.

"Interviewees will (now) feel compelled to provide honest answers," the ministry said.

The new law also strengthens officials' power to restrict the movement of infected people and to close contaminated facilities, with offenders who refuse to follow their orders also facing two years' jail or a 20 million won fine.

The number of state health workers in charge of preventing and tracing outbreaks will be doubled to more than 60.

The legislation comes as the government faces criticism for failing to stop the Mers outbreak, which is the largest outside Saudi Arabia.

Critics say the lack of coordination among health authorities, hospitals and local governments, combined with an inadequate number of quarantine experts and shortfalls in expertise, was responsible for the failure to stem the virus in the initial stage of the outbreak.

The authorities also came under fire for withholding the names of health facilities where the virus had been traced to, letting infected people go "doctor shopping" - visiting different hospitals to obtain second or third opinions, furthering the spread of the disease.

Seoul has announced a US$14 billion (S$18.8 billion) stimulus package as the outbreak dampens the already sagging economy, scaring away tourists and forcing consumers to stay home. The Finance Ministry slashed its growth forecast for this year to 3.1 per cent from an earlier projection of 3.8 per cent. It said the outbreak could pare up to 0.3 point off annual economic growth.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Seoul passes new law to curb Mers outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe