SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korea will decide on new social distancing rules on Saturday (Jan 2), as the country continues to battle the third and deadliest Covid-19 wave to date, officials said on Thursday.
The Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters said officials are in discussion with experts and local governments to come up with a new plan starting Monday, as social distancing rules in place will reach their end by Sunday's end.
At the moment, the region of Greater Seoul, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, is following Level 2.5 social distancing rules, while Level 2 rules are in place for the rest of the country.
Special rules out of concern of the winter holiday weekends are also in place through the coming weekend to minimise private gatherings and traffic between regions. Some of them are stronger than what would be imposed under the Level 3 social distancing scheme.
"So far we have not witnessed any trend of the number of new patients going on a downward curve to curb the third wave," said senior Health Ministry official Yoon Tae-ho in a press briefing on Thursday.
"But we analyse that the social distancing rules are showing effect even though they might be slow in coming to force. The trend of increase has gradually slowed each week, and the number of new cases have stayed in the 900 or 1,000 range for the past two weeks."
South Korea has been mulling to raise its social distancing measures to the highest level with the country continuing to report high numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths throughout this month.
Stricter social distancing rules have been in place for the capital region as Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province are responsible for close to 60 per cent of all cases reported in South Korea since the outbreak started in January.
But authorities have hesitated in raising the social distancing rules as recommended by many local experts in concern of potentially devastating economic outcomes of having more than 2 million multiuse facilities undergo limitations in business activities.
The country on Thursday reported 967 new Covid-19 cases - 940 locally transmitted and 27 imported from overseas - raising the total number of cases recorded in South Korea to 60,740.
By Wednesday's end, South Korea also reported a total of 900 deaths from the coronavirus, up 21 from a day earlier. The number of Covid-19 patients in serious or critical condition reached 344, up from 332 people a day earlier.
More than 4.21 million Covid-19 tests have been conducted since Jan 3, and 54,358 samples were taken on Wednesday, down from 61,343 samples a day earlier.
Mass cluster infections continued to be reported from elderly care facilities and private gatherings, with hundreds of cases and deaths found just this month.
The government has also been facing criticism for sluggishly responding to mass cluster infections at a correctional facility in Songpa-gu, southern Seoul, where more than 800 Covid-19 cases had been reported by Wednesday.
The Justice Ministry, which manages all correctional facilities in Korea, blamed the centre's layout, poor ventilation system and high population density for the spread of the virus.
Two inmates have died so far from the outbreak there, and the detention centre is now running tests of its 3,100 inmates and employees. Hundreds of inmates there were transferred to other prison facilities in the country.
To minimise contact among inmates, outside visitors and the prison staff, the government on Thursday imposed the highest-tier social distancing rules of Level 3 for prison facilities across the country, banning visits and cancelling all work and classes.
South Korea has also been paying close attention to the possibility of a highly contagious Covid-19 variant from Britain gaining greater force on its soil.
The country has so far confirmed five cases of the new variant from imported cases, and experts have emphasised that authorities must not let the new variant gain dominance over the original strain.
As the new variant adds to South Korea's woes in fighting the virus, authorities are in talks to secure vaccine doses for 56 million people and start the national vaccination programme in February.
South Korea also started reviewing local drug developer Celltrion's application for its Covid-19 treatment candidate this week, and Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a meeting on Thursday that the country will be able to present its locally developed vaccine by the end of 2021.
"For the whole year, we have fought against the tough challenge from Covid-19, and the fight is continuing at this moment," he said. "But from an overall perspective, we should be proud of the progress we have made so far."
The government also announced on Thursday that it will run an extra iteration of the state-run medical licensing exam in January for fourth-year medical students who missed the exam in September as a means to tackle the anticipated shortage of 2,700 doctors next year.