Coronavirus: South Korea returns to lockdown and pleads with citizens to adhere to social distancing guidelines

Seoul residents urged to 'freeze' daily routines as far as possible as new rules target restaurants, bars and private tuition centres following 18-day triple-digit spike in Covid-19 cases

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 31 August 2020 15:30 BST
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South Korea has implemented a second nationwide lockdown to fend off a new wave of coronavirus and pleaded with its citizens to again adhere to social distancing rules.

“Government officials and administrative orders alone cannot stop the daily activities of citizens,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a statement on Sunday. “We urge the public to practice complete social distancing over the next week.”

Suh Jung-hyup, acting mayor of Seoul, likewise asked the capital’s 10m residents to “freeze” their daily routines as far as possible until 6 September when the new measures will be placed under review.

Of the 25m cases of Covid-19 contracted worldwide so far, the South East Asian nation accounts for fewer than 20,000 and has seen just 324 people die of the respiratory disease, attracting international acclaim for its decisive and disciplined response to the global pandemic.

But the country has been hit by a resurgence over the last two weeks, recording its highest single-day total in months on Thursday when 441 Koreans were taken ill.

A further 238 cases were reported on Sunday, marking the 18th straight day of triple-digit rises.

South Korea’s government has been gradually reinforcing its social distancing rules since 16 August, closing public schools, nightclubs and churches and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people in any one location.

But those efforts have so far failed to halt the spread.

As part of the latest escalation, private tuition centres – known as “cram schools” – are being shuttered for the first time and restaurants, bars and food kiosks will now be subject to a 9pm curfew.

Coffee franchises will only be able to offer take-out or delivery services after a Starbucks outlet in Paju, north of Seoul, was found to be the epicentre of an outbreak of more than 60 cases.

Corporate and government offices are meanwhile encouraging their staff to work from home, with Monday morning’s rush hour visibly less busy as the new working week began.

Health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho said he hoped the latest restrictions would bring a decline in the daily infection numbers by the end of the week.

The new run of infections have also fuelled concern about a shortage of hospital beds and comes as almost 16,000 intern and resident doctors are on strike over government plans to boost the number of doctors to better handle health crises like the coronavirus.

On Monday, the health ministry postponed a medical licence exam set for Tuesday by a week after more than 90 per cent of medical students due to take the test withdrew and joined the walkout.

President Moon Jae-in has urged them to return to work.

The student and trainee doctors said the government’s plans would flood an already competitive market and trainees’ salaries should be improved to alleviate a shortage of doctors in rural areas.

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