SEOUL: South Korea's Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Wednesday (Feb 17) warned against loosening enforcement of social distancing rules after the number of new coronavirus cases hit the highest levels in nearly 40 days.
The government relaxed distancing curbs starting this week, after getting on top of a third wave of COVID-19 outbreaks that peaked at around 1,200 daily cases in late December.
But the numbers shot back up in just three days, topping 600 for the first time in 39 days on Tuesday, after a ban on nighttime entertainment facilities was lifted and a restaurant curfew extended by one hour to 10pm.
Chung said there were signs of lax discipline, singling out nightclubs opening at 5am and people partying at a hotel after the curfew.
"We've eased distancing to help small business owners maintain their livelihoods, not to keep a slack rein on the virus," he told a televised meeting.
"The third wave is not over, and some experts are even warning about a potential fourth wave in March or April ... now is never the time to loosen up."
South Korea's drug safety ministry granted final approval on Wednesday for a shipment of 1.57 million doses of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine, as authorities gear up to begin vaccinating healthcare workers on Feb 26.
The doses will be produced by local drugmaker SK Bioscience, which is scheduled to deliver its first batch on Feb 24.
Authorities plan to hold a vaccination drill on Friday under real-life scenarios for shipping the AstraZeneca products to a local clinic where inoculation will take place.
The government has secured deals to procure 40 million special syringes from two local manufacturers that could improve the efficiency of the vaccines by 20 per cent by minimising drug residues left in needles, a health official told Reuters.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 621 cases as of midnight on Tuesday, as testing increased following last week's Lunar New Year holidays. Cases in the previous few days ranged from the 300s to the 400s.
Authorities are on high alert as more cluster infections could emerge due to the holidays, during which millions of Koreans travelled across the country to visit relatives or tourist sites.
If the numbers continue to surge, the government will consider reinstating stricter curbs to prevent a fourth wave before its vaccination campaign begins on Feb 26, said Son Young-rae, a senior health ministry official.
"March and April are when another wave is most likely to occur because vaccination could bring weaker vigilance in general and public fatigue toward distancing is rising," Son told reporters.
South Korea's total infections grew to 84,946 cases, with 1,538 deaths.