South Korea takes measured step to stem Covid-19 surge as Omicron arrives

A sign warning people of the spread of the Omicron variant at a testing station in Gwangju, South Korea. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - With a record number of Covid-19 cases and the emergence of the Omicron variant, South Korea was expected to reinstate strict social distancing measures to stem the latest Covid-19 surge.

But instead, the Prime Minister on Friday (Dec 3) urged the country to work from home and not move around too much.

The only new restriction he announced: No more than six people can gather, down from 10 currently, in the greater Seoul area, while outside of greater Seoul, only eight people can gather, down from 12.

High-risk businesses such as nightclubs and bars will remain open.

But from next Monday, people visiting 14 designated public spaces, including hospitality and entertainment venues, will have to show their vaccines passes, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a coronavirus response meeting, setting out the plan to reduce the risk of community spread.

The public will have a grace period of a week to get used to the new rules.

While people have been required to show their vaccine pass at high-risk venues such as gyms, saunas and bars, it is the first time that the requirement has been extended to restaurants and cafes.

From February, anyone aged 12 years or older will have to show a vaccination pass.

The government decided to lower the exemption age, currently set at 17 years, to encourage teenagers to get vaccinated as the under-18 age group accounts for 20 per cent of all infections, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told a briefing.

The measured step parallels moves made by other Asian nations trying to avoid returning to days of lockdowns and containment rules that hampered their economies and frustrated the public - despite resurgence of the virus and the emergence of the Omicron variant.

"We cannot stop or give up on the daily recovery that everyone has longed for," Mr Kim said during the coronavirus response meeting.

"Our people have successfully overcome many crises by demonstrating the spirit of solidarity and cooperation. Now, we need to pour that strength into overcoming the December crisis."

Like its Asian neighbours, South Korea has been reluctant to take drastic steps that would hurt its economy, particularly mom-and-pop restaurants and businesses.

Instead, the government has made pleas such as the one from the Prime Minister on Friday, urging the public to take preventive measures including getting booster shots, working from home if possible and cancelling or postponing meetings and events.

The government's muted response comes as the country reported its first Omicron variant infection late on Wednesday.

A couple returning from a visit to Nigeria tested positive for Covid-19. Subsequent genome tests confirmed they, along with their child and two acquaintances, were infected with the Omicron variant.

Also this week, the number of daily new Covid-19 cases surged to a record - topping 5,000 for the first time - with those in critical condition surpassing 700. Severe cases set another record on Thursday.

The latest surge is a setback for a country that has been lauded as a model for containing the outbreak without a lockdown.

South Korea eased social distancing measures for a "gradual return to normal life" from last month after resisting harsh measures and working to prevent severe damage to the economy by managing outbreaks with targeted quarantine restrictions.

In July, when the number of new cases doubled to more than 1,600 a day, the country imposed strict distancing measures, including limiting gatherings to no more than two people.

Even though daily new cases rose to more than 2,000 and stayed in that range, South Korea eased the restrictions on Nov 1, citing the high vaccination rate and the economic necessity of propping up restaurants suffering from the prolonged pandemic.

After a slow start due to supply shortages, South Korea stepped up vaccinations and is now among the world's most vaccinated with about 80 per cent of the population fully inoculated.

Relatively low rates of severe illness and death bolstered the government's argument for relaxing restrictions. That allowed as many as 10 people to dine together, and sports teams to once more fill their stadiums with spectators.

The easing brightened the country's economic outlook, which had struggled through the darkest days of the pandemic-induced restrictions.

South Korea's exports are on track to hit an annual record, buoyed by year-end holiday demand and higher product prices even as supply chain bottlenecks continued to pressure manufacturers.

Exports rose 32.1 per cent in November from a year earlier to US$60.4 billion (S$82.7 billion), a monthly record, data from the trade ministry showed on Wednesday.

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