Authorities say tougher distancing measures necessary to limit spread following recent triple-digit jumps in cases.
South Korea signed new COVID-19 vaccine deals on Thursday, as daily new coronavirus cases fell below 1,000 and the authorities imposed its most stringent social-distancing rules yet to help contain the spread of the virus during the holiday season.
The government said on Thursday it reached agreements with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen and Pfizer to procure more vaccines, which are expected to be rolled out in the second quarter of next year.
The country is battling a third wave of the virus, and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported an additional 985 cases on Thursday, including 955 local infections, raising the total to 53,533. About 70 percent of patients are considered fully recovered.
During the last week, there were at least four days when cases exceeded 1,000 prompting authorities to impose tougher social-distancing measures.
An additional 17 people died in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 756 – still among the lowest in terms of fatalities worldwide.
The authorities said seven more patients were considered seriously or critically ill with a total of 291.
Since the new wave of infections emerged, authorities have been debating how to impose new restrictions, while also keeping local businesses afloat.
Health officials arrived at the conclusion to deploy “targeted” virus curbs that would not deal a severe blow to millions of small merchants, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Starting on Thursday, gatherings of five or more individuals are banned nationwide in a measure that was initially implemented only in the Seoul metropolitan area.
Restaurants also face the threat of stiff fines if they breach the rule.
Ski resorts and other tourist destinations were also ordered to shut down at least during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun says the two vaccine deals announced on Thursday will cover 16 million people.
The KCDA will buy vaccines for 10 million people from Pfizer and six million from Janssen, compared with its initial plan for four million people.
“The government has come in for increasing criticism for its ‘overly cautious’ approach,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul. “It has run around and tried to secure millions of extra doses but it’s doing that at a time when every other developed country in the world is competing for vaccines.”
Seoul struck an agreement with AstraZeneca in late November and made an advance payment of $77.6m in October to the World Health Organization’s global vaccine project, known as COVAX.
A deal with Moderna is expected to be signed next month, covering 10 million more people. Moderna’s product has already secured regulatory approval in the United States and Canada.
Earlier, the government set a goal of securing vaccines for 44 million people, or 88 percent of the total population. With an increased supply from Janssen, at least 46 million people will now be covered.
“The government will pay thorough attention to make sure that the public can be vaccinated as soon as possible, without any anxiety, while carefully studying the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines administered (overseas),” Prime Minister Chung was quoted by Yonhap as saying.