South Korea reinstates distancing curbs amid spike in Covid-19 cases

Curbs will return from Dec 18 to Jan 2, limiting gatherings to no more than four people. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - South Korea said on Thursday (Dec 16) it will reinstate social distancing rules a month-and-a-half after lifting them under a 'living with Covid-19' policy, as spiralling numbers of both new infections and serious cases threaten to overwhelm its medical system.

Gatherings of five or more people will be banned while eateries and night-time entertainment businesses must close by 9pm as the country steps up curbs to fight a record surge in coronavirus cases.

The country will put in place the new social distancing rules from Saturday that run until Jan 2 as the threat looms of an even higher surge fueled by the Omicron variant. Most cases in the recent surge have been linked to people gathering at restaurants, bars and shopping malls, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said on Thursday.

"The situation is very serious," Mr Kim said at an emergency Covid-19 response meeting in Seoul. "We are doing our best to expand medical capacity as well as inoculations to overcome the current crisis. However, this requires time, and in the meantime, we need stronger social distancing." 

South Korea hit a daily record of 7,850 new cases on Wednesday – a setback for a country once been lauded as a model for containing the outbreak without a lockdown. It has also been damaging to President Moon Jae-in’s progressive Democratic Party ahead of a presidential election in March to replace the current leader who can’t run due to term limits.

The new restrictions come just two weeks after South Korea tried to curb the surge by banning gatherings of six or more people, down from 10, in the greater Seoul area. The number was eight or fewer for the rest of the nation. 

The spread is coming despite South Korea having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, with about 81 per cent of the population receiving two or more doses. But the majority of the new, serious cases as well as deaths were among the unvaccinated. The 8 per cent of the population 18 and over not inoculated accounted for 51.2 per cent of serious cases and 53.9 per cent of deaths, according to government data.

Like many of 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 urged the public to take preventive measures including getting booster shots, working from home if possible and canceling or postponing meetings and events.

On Thursday, South Korea confirmed 7,622 daily new cases with critical Covid-19 patients rising to a record 989. Omicron cases totalled 148, up 20 from a day earlier. There were 62 additional Covid-related deaths.

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