South Korea has ordered schools to close from Tuesday in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas as it battles its worst outbreak of novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, surpassing the previous peak in February.
Schools in the capital region will move classes online until the end of the month, in the latest ratcheting up of social distancing measures which so far have failed to reverse the spike in infections.
The head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, Jeong Eun-kyeong, predicted that daily daily cases will rise to between 950 to 1,200 in the near future, up from 718 new infections declared on Monday.
“Its pattern is different from the first and the second wave and we judge that this is the greatest crisis since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.
The school closure is a step towards the imposition of Phase 3 social distancing rules, a move that would essentially lock down Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said such a step required careful review, as the government comes under mounting pressure to do more to stop the rise of infections.
“The government will not hesitate to make the decision to upgrade to Phase 3 if it is considered necessary as it takes into account the opinions of related ministries, local governments, and experts,” he told a meeting of health officials according to a transcript from his office.
The new outbreak centres around Seoul and the neighbouring port city of Incheon, plus Gyeonggi Province, home to over 25 million people.
South Korea’s total infections now stands at 43,484, with 587 deaths.
The government has launched a massive tracing effort involving hundreds of troops, police and officials to help track down virus carriers.
Health authorities said a recent wave of infections mainly stems from gatherings with friends and families, which limits the effectiveness of social distancing rules.
“It is more than ever important to actively partake in social distancing and minimise the chances of contact,” said Dr Jeong. “Please refrain from visiting crowded venues and cancel all gatherings with family and friends.”
Some experts said the government and the public needed to do more.
“This is the time to send an impactful message to the public, so that they can take voluntary actions,” said Kim Dong-hyun, president of Korean Society of Epidemiology and a professor at Hallym University College of Medicine.
Under a Phase 3 lockdown, only essential workers would be allowed into offices and gatherings would be capped at less than 10 people.