SEOUL • Doctors in South Korea have threatened a protest strike against legislation to strip them of licences following criminal convictions, sparking fears about possible disruption of a Covid-19 vaccination plan set to begin this week.
Healthcare workers are scheduled to receive the first batch of AstraZeneca's vaccine from Friday, as South Korea looks to protect 10 million high-risk people by July, on its way to reaching herd immunity by November.
But at the weekend, the Korean Medical Association, the largest grouping of doctors, said it would go on strike if Parliament passes a Bill to revoke the licences of doctors who receive jail terms.
"The Bill might result in ordinary, innocent doctors being stripped of their licences and falling into hell because of an accident that has nothing to do with their job, or lack of legal knowledge," its spokesman Kim Dae-ha said in a statement yesterday.
Association president Choi Dae-zip has called the Bill cruel, saying that its passage into law would destroy current cooperation with the government to treat the virus and carry out the vaccine campaign.
But no date has been set yet for the strike, the association said.
The stand-off stoked concern that any strike of doctors could slow the vaccine roll-out at a time when the authorities are scrambling to allocate medical personnel to about 250 vaccination centres and 10,000 clinics nationwide.
Discord over the Bill is undesirable ahead of the vaccine roll-out, the Health Ministry said, adding that there has been misunderstanding about the Bill.
Parliament has been seeking to revise the Medical Service Act to ban doctors guilty of violent crimes, such as sexual abuse and murder, from practising.
Ruling party lawmakers pushing for the Bill denounced the association, saying it is trying to "take public health hostage to maintain impunity from heinous crimes".
AstraZeneca doses enough for about 750,000 people will be distributed from a production facility of SK Chemicals' unit SK Bioscience to immunisation centres across the country from tomorrow, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency director Jeong Eun-kyeong said.
The first inoculation is set for Friday morning, Mr Jeong said.
South Korea will begin administering the first of 117,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine on Saturday to around 55,000 healthcare workers in Covid-19 treatment facilities.
The government's goal of reaching herd immunity by November will be achievable only if the public responds in good measure to the vaccination programme and if the authorities are able to secure enough doses on time, as well as control the more transmissible new variants, Mr Jeong said.
Last week, a government poll showed almost 94 per cent of 367,000 healthcare workers aged 64 or below in priority groups said they were ready to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite concerns over its efficacy in older people. About 95 per cent said they would accept Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine.
South Korea recorded 332 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, taking its cumulative tally to 87,324, with a total death toll of 1,562.