South Korea passes new law to curb Mers outbreak - liars to face fine or prison sentence

A man getting into an ambulance in Daegu on June 26 to return home after recovering from Mers.
A man getting into an ambulance in Daegu on June 26 to return home after recovering from Mers. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea has introduced a new law designed to curb an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), tightening quarantine restrictions and imposing jail sentences on those who defy anti-infection measures in a crisis that has now left 31 dead.

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

"False testimony would entail up two years in prison or 20 million won (S$24,200) in fines," said the new law, which replaces the fine that could be meted out to anyone who did not tell the truth under previous legislation. "Interviewees will (now) feel compelled to provide honest answers."

The new law also strengthens officials' power to restrict the movement of infected people and close contaminated facilities, with offenders who refuse to follow their orders also facing two years in prison or a US$18,000 fine.

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

The legislation comes as South Korea's government is facing criticism for failing to stop the Mers outbreak, which has now become the largest ever outside Saudi Arabia.

Two new fatalities were reported on Friday, the Health Ministry said - both women, aged 79 and 80, who had existing health conditions.

A doctor at Seoul's Samsung Medical Centre, the hospital to which nearly half of all infections have been traced, was also confirmed to have contracted the disease.

The hospital earlier this week decided to extend indefinitely a 12-day suspension of normal services as patients, doctors and visitors continued to be diagnosed with the disease.

The latest fatalities brought the total death toll to 31, the Health Ministry said, with 181 people diagnosed with the deadly virus since the first case emerged on May 20.

Of those diagnosed, aside from the number of dead, 81 have recovered and 69 are still being treated, including 13 listed in critical condition.