S Korea tightens curbs in Seoul as Covid-19 cases hit 9-month high

People wearing face masks walk?at a traditional market amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, Nov 27, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL: South Korea will impose heightened social distancing rules for the capital Seoul and surrounding areas, health officials said yesterday, as the authorities struggle to contain the largest wave of coronavirus infection in nine months.

The decision comes after the government implemented unprecedented measures on Saturday (Dec 5) in a country that saw initial success through aggressive contact tracing and other steps.

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"We are in a very dangerous situation," Health Ministry official Park Neung-hoo told a briefing, saying localised clusters have the potential to become a national outbreak.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 631 new cases as of midnight Saturday - the largest daily tally since a peak in February and early March - bringing the country's total to 37,546, with 545 deaths.

Nearly a month of triple-digit daily infections has brought the number of cases to a record 7,873, the KDCA said, raising concerns over the dwindling number of hospital beds.

"Right now it is exceeding the level that we can control in our hospital system," Mr Park said.

New beds are being added and for now, there are enough to treat patients, but if the trend continues, the country could face a shortage of beds, he said.

Many of the recent cases have been centred in Seoul, which on Saturday launched unprecedented curfews, shuttering most establishments at 9pm for two weeks and cutting back public transportation by 30 per cent in the evenings.

Under the new measures, which go into effect tomorrow, gatherings of 50 or more people are prohibited, gyms and karaoke bars must close, religious services must be held online or by broadcast, and stricter attendance limits will be placed on school classes.

While restaurants will still be allowed to provide in-person service, the government is urging people to avoid eating out if possible and not hold non-essential social gatherings.

The curbs will last at least three weeks, until the end of the month. Other areas of the country will also see heightened restrictions, but at a lower level than the Seoul area.

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Meanwhile, Japan's government is considering the resumption of inbound tourism on a limited basis from spring as Tokyo prepares to host a delayed summer Olympics, the Asahi newspaper reported yesterday.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's administration is leaning towards allowing small tour groups from Asian countries where coronavirus infections are well under control, such as China and Taiwan.

Under the new plan, tourists would have to test negative for the coronavirus and submit a detailed travel itinerary before entering. They would travel only by hired coach and be separated from other customers at their hotel and sightseeing destinations.

Tourists would also be required to use a tracing app and give daily updates on their health.

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.