Incoming South Korea govt concerned over 'premature' decision to lift outdoor mask mandate next week

People enjoy a picnic at a river park in Seoul on April 26, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea will lift an outdoor face mask mandate starting next week, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum announced on Friday (April 29), in the country's latest step to ease Covid-19 restrictions, despite opposition from the incoming government which labelled the decision "premature".

The move would come two weeks after South Korea scrapped most of its pandemic-related precautions, including a midnight curfew on restaurants and other businesses, on April 18.

"We concluded we can no longer look away from... the inconveniences experienced by our people where they have to keep face masks on even when strolling alone or on a picnic with family," Mr Kim said during a Covid-19 response meeting.

People are still required to wear masks, however, at events with 50 attendants or more, such as at rallies, concerts and sports stadiums, he said.

South Korea reported 50,568 new coronavirus cases on Friday, well down from the peak of more than 620,000 a day in mid-March.

The decision came just days ahead of newly elected President Yoon Suk-yeol’s inauguration on May 10 and despite his team’s opposition, prompting them to immediately express regrets and concerns over the announcement.

"The transition team agrees with pushing for the lifting of mask-wearing mandate as part of efforts to return to normal life, but we have stressed multiple times that removing the outdoor mask mandate at this point would be premature," a spokesperson for Mr Yoon’s team, Hong Kyung-hee, told a briefing.

Ahn Cheol-soo, the head of Yoon’s transition team, had said earlier this week that the new government will consider going mask-free outdoors around end-May.

South Korea has largely managed to limit deaths and critical cases through widespread vaccination, and it has scaled back the aggressive tracing and containment efforts that made it a mitigation success story from most of the first two years of the pandemic.

Nearly 87 per cent of the country's 52 million population are fully vaccinated, with 65 per cent having also had a booster, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency data.

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