South Korea is not lagging behind other countries in its Covid-19 vaccination programme and will probably achieve herd immunity quicker than its neighbours, President Moon Jae-in said yesterday.
He also gave an assurance that the government will screen vaccines stringently before approving them for use, so people "can get inoculated confidently".
Speaking at his New Year press conference, Mr Moon refuted criticism that his administration had bungled immunisation plans by failing to secure vaccines earlier and had scrambled to ink deals only after Singapore became the first Asian country to receive and approve them last month.
He said the government had purchased enough vaccines to cover its 50 million population, and is set to start inoculations in late February or early March once the first batch of vaccines arrives from the World Health Organisation's global programme, Covax.
As such, herd immunity could be achieved as early as September - two months earlier than forecast by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
Vaccination will be free for citizens as well as foreign residents.
Mr Moon urged people to be patient as the inoculations will take time and vaccines will arrive in batches due to storage concerns.
"Our timing of vaccinations and herd immunity is not late compared to other countries. In fact, I think we will be faster," he told a group of 20 journalists gathered at the Blue House and another 100 online.
With Covid-19 treatments also set to be rolled out next month, "we can revive our economy and resume daily life faster than any other country", he added.
Asked about public concerns over side effects and the safety of vaccines that were developed in record time due to the urgency of the pandemic, Mr Moon said that the KDCA was "very cautious" when signing deals and sought to "diversify the risk" by buying vaccines from various drugmakers.
"If people's concerns rise and they are adverse to vaccination, I will lead by example and be the first to get inoculated," he added.
South Korea has been fighting a severe third Covid-19 wave for weeks, with daily figures spiking to a record high of 1,240 on Dec 25.
Tightened social distancing measures, combined with a ban on social gatherings of more than four people, brought the daily tally of cases down to 389 yesterday-the lowest since Nov 25 and a clear sign that the infection curve is flattening.
The total tally stood at 72,729, and the death toll was 1,264.
While remaining vigilant over various small clusters, the government has decided to lift some Covid-19 restrictions in Seoul and greater Seoul to ease the financial strain on small businesses heavily affected by the pandemic.
Cafes resumed dine-in services and indoor sports clubs reopened for business from yesterday, but only until 9pm.