South Korea has reported a six-month high of 1,212 new daily cases of the coronavirus, as concern grows over a possible fourth wave of the pandemic due to cluster outbreaks among unvaccinated young people and a rising number of the more contagious Delta variant infections.
President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday (July 7) urged swift action to contain the outbreak, calling for an expansion of testing facilities and clamping down on violations against social distancing rules that include a ban on gatherings of more than four people.
Long queues could be seen outside several Covid-19 test centres in Seoul as people took the government's advice to play it safe.
The virus was spreading mainly among people in their 20s and 30s, the Health Ministry said.
The 1,212 cases on Wednesday marked the second-highest daily tally in the country, raising the total to 162,753. The highest was 1,240 on Christmas Day last year, amid a third wave of the virus.
Of the 1,168 local cases on Wednesday, 84.8 per cent were in Seoul and greater Seoul.
Worried about a further spike, the government has again delayed plans to cut back on restrictions to ease growing public fatigue.
South Korea intended to ease social distancing rules nationwide from July 1 to allow bigger social gatherings of six people - up from the current four - and longer operating hours for restaurants, indoor sports facilities and others.
But the plan was put on hold in Seoul and greater Seoul after cases started rising last week.
The current rules were extended by another week on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum warning that the government will consider raising restrictions in Seoul and greater Seoul to the highest level if the situation does not improve over the next two to three days.
If that comes about, all nightlife venues will be closed and only two people can gather after 6pm.
"This is an emergency situation," Mr Kim said in a briefing on Wednesday. "We must pour all our capabilities into responding to Covid-19."
Seoul mayor On Se-hoon announced that the city will cut bus and subway schedules by 20 per cent after 10pm, in a bid to counter the latest outbreak. The rule will be imposed on Friday.
In a briefing on Wednesday, he also said the city will add 25 temporary testing centres to cope with increased demand, and secure an additional 2,000 or more beds at treatment facilities for patients.
The city had banned drinking between 10pm and 5am at public parks from Tuesday, to prevent people from gathering at these open spaces after restaurants and cafes close at 10pm.
The number of cases tied to a cluster - traced to a gathering of English-language teachers in a pub in the north-western university town of Hongdae in Seoul - increased to 314 as at Wednesday, while that linked to Hyundai Department Store in the south-eastern Gangnam district rose to 47.
A cluster involving an elementary school in Incheon city grew to 41 cases.
The army also reported 37 cases among newly enlisted soldiers training at a boot camp in south-western Nonsan city.
Meanwhile, the number of Delta variant infections has increased to 7 per cent, up from 1 per cent two months ago.
Experts said this is worrying as vaccinations are less effective against this more infectious variant.
A British study shows that protection against the Delta variant after a single dose of the AstraZeneca shot was only about 30 per cent, and about 36 per cent for Pfizer. These are the two main vaccines administered in South Korea.
As at Wednesday, 30 per cent of South Korea's 51.3 million population had received at least one shot of a vaccine. Only 10 per cent had had two doses.