SEOUL: South Korea's capital Seoul and surrounding areas banned gatherings of more than four people over the Christmas and New Year holidays as the country recorded its highest daily death toll from COVID-19 on Monday (Dec 21).
The national government has resisted calls to impose a strict national lockdown but the governments of Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon city ordered unprecedented restrictions on gatherings from Dec 23 to Jan 3.
"We cannot overcome the current crisis without reducing cluster infections that are spreading through private gatherings with families, friends and colleagues," Seoul acting mayor Seo Jung-hyup said at a briefing.
"This is the last chance to break the spread."
The ban on gatherings applies to all indoor and outdoor functions except funerals and weddings. Currently gatherings of more than nine people are banned.
The two cities and the province account for about half of South Korea's 51 million residents.
Within Seoul, restaurants and similar venues accounted for 41.4 per cent of cluster infections over the past four weeks, followed by 16.9 per cent from offices, 15.5 per cent from places of worship and 12.3 per cent from medical facilities and nursing homes, according to local government data.
Police raided dozens of venues, including bars and karaoke clubs, suspected of violating social distancing rules on Friday, charging 35 people, the city said in a statement.
As of midnight on Sunday, there were 24 additional deaths, bringing the country's total to 698, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said.
There were a further 926 coronavirus cases, down from a record high 1,097 the day before.
As of Sunday, there were just four intensive care unit beds remaining in the greater Seoul area, according to health officials.
The government has ordered private hospitals to free up more than 300 beds to be used for coronavirus patients, and has allocated US$4.5 million to compensate the facilities.
Health officials have said imposing the nation's highest level of social distancing restrictions would only be a final resort.