South Korea advises 15-day facilities suspension as experts prepare for 'long battle' against coronavirus

A woman receives a coronavirus test swab at a testing booth outside the Yangji hospital in Seoul on March 17, 2020.
A woman receives a coronavirus test swab at a testing booth outside the Yangji hospital in Seoul on March 17, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea on Saturday (March 21) advised its public to close facilities and forgo socialising for 15 days, keeping to its policy of voluntary social distancing but warning of consequences if the rules are not followed to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

The country reported 147 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, jumping from the previous day’s 87, and experts noted the need to prepare for a “long battle” as concerns of imported cases and new outbreaks around small clusters persisted.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a televised address the government strongly recommended religious, sports and entertainment facilities suspend operations, and people avoid socialising and travel for the next 15 days.

If facilities do not conform to rules while operating, the government will order gatherings to disperse.

"In the event of failure to comply with the administrative order, we will actively take all possible measures as stipulated by law, including the shutdown of the facilities and indemnity claims," Mr Chung said.

Saturday’s new cases bring the country’s total to 8,799. The cumulative number of deaths associated with the virus also rose to 104.

The daily tally marked the 10th day in a row that the country has posted new infections in the mid-100s or below, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

South Korea has seen a downward trend in new cases from the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb 29.

Out of the 147 new cases, 109 were from South Korea’s fourth-largest city, Daegu, and the adjoining North Gyeongsang Province, where 86 per cent of all South Korean cases have been so far.

More than 165 cases in the region were spread in and from hospitals for the elderly, KCDC data showed.

But other regions saw increases as well, including 15 new cases in Seoul and six detected while entering the country from abroad.

"You may feel that the current situation has improved a lot compared to the past, but... we continue to see group infection, inflows from foreign countries, mass outbreaks at various workplaces," Mr Yoon Tae-ho, director general for public health policy, said at a briefing.

Mr Yoon cited experts as saying that more arrangements in structural social distancing and medical systems are needed to“prepare for a long battle” as coronavirus spreads globally, but said South Korea has not considered extreme forms of travel restrictions that other countries have taken.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said earlier on Saturday up to 3.8 trillion won (S$4.8 billion) in disaster management funds may be used for small businesses and disadvantaged people specifically for coronavirus-related difficulties.

South Korea will hold a general election on April 15.