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S. Korea to adopt new social distancing scheme in July as vaccinations gather pace

A medical worker conducts a coronavirus test at a makeshift clinic in front of Seoul Station on Thursday. (Yonhap)
A medical worker conducts a coronavirus test at a makeshift clinic in front of Seoul Station on Thursday. (Yonhap)
South Korea will introduce new COVID-19 social distancing rules in July if the nation's daily caseload remains below 1,000, health authorities said Friday.

The new rules are aimed at imposing fairer restrictions and giving the public a simpler message on containment, officials said.

The revamped distancing rules will also come as the country's vaccination campaign is gathering pace. As of Thursday, the country has vaccinated more than 3 million people, or 6 percent of the country's 52-million population.

Health authorities aim to inoculate 12 million by end-June.

Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, told reporters that the government aims to "bring daily new infections below 1,000 by the end of June, given the medical system's capacity."

The nation's current five-tier social distancing rules have faced growing criticism as they strictly ban specific shops and businesses, while there are loopholes in the containment efforts for religious facilities, hospitals and other companies that have been hit by mass outbreaks.

The new system will have four tiers of social distancing rules and allow merchants, such as coffee shops, restaurants and movie theaters, to do business under voluntary containment efforts.

Only some high-risk entertainment facilities, such as nightclubs, will be ordered to suspend their businesses if health authorities impose the highest level of restrictions.

The four-tier rules will be implemented depending on the average number of weekly confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

If the number is below 1, authorities will impose Level 1 distancing rules. If the number is above 4, Level 4 rules will be in place.

So, for example, if daily cases are below some 500 nationwide, Level 1 rules are imposed. If daily cases are above some 2,000 nationwide, Level 4 rules are imposed.

South Korea has reported about 600 or 700 confirmed cases per day in recent days.

Under the revamped Level 1 rules, people will be required to follow standard containment efforts, including an advisory to space themselves 1 meter apart.

The revamped Level 2 rules will ban private gatherings of more than eight people, while the revamped Level 3 rules will ban private gatherings of more than four people.

Under the revamped Level 4 rules, private gatherings of more than four people will be allowed, but private gatherings of more than two people will be banned after 6 p.m. Health authorities will require merchants to close their businesses after 9 p.m.

Health authorities have vowed to speed up a vaccination drive to complete inoculating 12 million people by the end of June, with a goal of achieving herd immunity by November.

On Friday, the government said it will extend its current social distancing measures for another three weeks, as health authorities grapple with sporadic cluster infections.

The greater Seoul area, home to around half of the nation's population, will remain under Level 2 distancing, and the rest of the country will be subject to Level 1.5 distancing for an additional three weeks starting Monday.

Bans on gatherings of five or more people and restrictions on small businesses, such as restaurants and cafes, will also remain in place for another three weeks. (Yonhap)
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