South Korea puts Seoul under tightest COVID curbs amid new case records

Members of Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union attend a rally calling for measures to expand manpower at the coronavirus hospitals and improve their working conditions outside of National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea

From Monday South Korea will for the first time tighten coronavirus curbs to the strictest level possible in Seoul and neighbouring regions, as alarm spreads with new COVID-19 cases setting a second consecutive daily record nationwide.

South Korea, which has so far fared better than many industralised nations in case numbers and deaths, reported 1,316 new COVID-19 infections as of midnight Thursday, up from Wednesday’s previous record of 1,275.

Helped largely by vaccinations of older people, there has yet to be a significant increase in hospitalisations or deaths, with a mortality rate of 1.23% and the number of severe cases at 148 as of Thursday remaining far below levels seen during the previous peak in late December.

But on Thursday a top health official warned the new case numbers may nearly double by the end of July and Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum announced two weeks of tougher curbs – level 4 is the most severe on South Korea’s scale, short of a full lockdown – during a televised government meeting.

Experts said the government’s COVID-19 strategy is to avoid the hit to the economy that has been seen in full lockdowns elsewhere.

“The government strategy is to steer away from lockdown fearing negative impact on the economy. Level 4 is the harshest it can get,” said Kim Dong-hyun, former president of Korean Society of Epidemiology.

Under the new curbs, people are advised to stay home as much as possible, schools are recommended to switch to remote learning, social gatherings are restricted to two people after 6.00 p.m. from four earlier in the day, and rallies are banned.

No spectators are allowed to attend sports matches, while hotels can only operate at two-thirds of full capacity. Movies and concerts are not allowed after 10 p.m, and nightclubs and bars are to shut, while restaurants and cafes would be allowed limited seating and only take-out services after 10 p.m.

Employers are advised to increase flexible staffing with 30% of staff working remotely.

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