South Korea to tighten social distancing, warns of new COVID-19 crisis

South Korea will impose stricter social distancing rules for the greater Seoul area a month after easing them, officials said on Tuesday, warning of an even bigger crisis if anti-COVID-19 efforts fail to dampen a spike in new cases.

Starting Thursday, tighter curbs will ban public gatherings of 100 people or more, limit religious services and audiences at sporting events to 30% capacity, and require high-risk facilities including clubs and karaoke bars to broaden distance among guests.

South Korea has been one of the world`s coronavirus mitigation success stories after tackling the first major COVID-19 epidemic outside China with aggressive tracing and testing, but continues to battle persistent rises in infections.

The tougher restrictions came as the daily case tally hovered above 200 for a fourth consecutive day, with a series of cluster outbreaks emerging from offices, medical facilities and small gatherings in Seoul and surrounding regions where around half of the country`s 52 million population live.

“Our anti-coronavirus efforts are facing a crisis,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a meeting.

“The heightened curbs would cause greater inconvenience in our daily lives … but we all know from our experiences that there would be an even bigger crisis if we don`t act now.”

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 230 cases, the highest since early September. Nearly 68% of the 202 domestic infections came from the greater Seoul area.

The country`s total infections rose to 28,998, with 494 deaths.

Health authorities warned the daily tally could go as high as 400 in coming weeks, asking citizens to stick to strict hygiene rules and minimise year-end celebrations.

“It`s important to bring a turnaround without further levelling up the measures, which could have a large impact on people`s livelihoods,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told reporters, adding the government will decide on its next move in two weeks.

With the pandemic raging around the globe, the foreign ministry extended its special travel advisory by another month, urging all nonessential overseas trips to be cancelled.

The KDCA said it was arranging an air ambulance to bring six athletes and two officials of the men`s national football team who have tested positive for the coronavirus from Austria, where they were staying for friendly matches.

South Korea to tighten social distancing, warns of new COVID-19 crisis