South Korea has added another new 1,092 infections of the coronavirus in a resurgence that is erasing hard-won epidemiological gains and eroding public confidence in the government’s ability to handle the outbreak.
The figures released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Wednesday brought the national caseload to 52,550, with more than 13,130 cases added in the last two weeks alone.
Seventeen COVID-19 patients died in the past 24 hours, bringing the death toll to 739 as concerns grow about a shortage in intensive care beds. At least 284 of the country’s 15,085 active patients were in serious or critical condition.
South Korea had been seen as a success story against COVID-19 after health workers managed to contain a major outbreak in its southeastern region in spring, when the majority of infections were linked to a single church congregation in Daegu city.
But critics say the country gambled on its own success by easing social distancing restrictions to help the economy. The spread of the virus is now mainly in the densely populated capital region, and health workers are struggling mightily to track infections occurring just about everywhere, including hospitals, long-term care facilities and army units.
The government has restored some social distancing restrictions in recent weeks and will clamp down on private social gatherings of five or more people between Christmas Eve and Jan. 3. Restaurants could be fined if they accept large groups, ski resorts and national parks will be closed, and hotels cannot sell more than 50% of their rooms during the period.
South Korea is also stepping up border controls, halting air travel from Britain at least through Dec. 31 over concerns of a new and seemingly more contagious variant of the virus that has been identified in southeast England.
Senior Health Ministry official Yoon Taeho said during a virus briefing that South Korean diplomatic offices in Britain will also stop issuing quarantine waivers so that all passengers coming from the country are placed under isolation for at least two weeks until a negative test.
Yoon acknowledged it would be difficult to fully detect all passengers who stopped or stayed in Britain if they arrive through other countries, but noted that neighboring European nations have also strengthened their border controls for people coming from Britain.
Thirty-two of the new cases reported by the country were linked to international arrivals, including four passengers arriving from Britain. South Korean authorities have not yet reported a local case of the new variant of the virus.
In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:
— Authorities will temporarily ease pandemic restrictions over most of Sydney to let more children attend Christmas gatherings as COVID-19 cases linked to a cluster in the city’s northern beaches reached 100. While Sydney residents will be limited to having 10 people in their homes, children under the age of 12 will not be counted in that number from Thursday through Saturday. A lockdown in the beach communities at the heart of the cluster was being eased in some sections. Seven new cases linked to the cluster were detected in the latest 24-hour period. The cluster was first detected last week, although how the U.S.-strain reached the area is unknown.
— Authorities in Sri Lanka are reopening the island nation's two international airports for flights and tourists after they were closed for nearly nine months because of the coronavirus. Bandaranaike International Airport and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport will reopen on Saturday. However, officials said only some selected flights — mainly charter flights carrying tourists — will initially be allowed to operate. The airports will be fully operational in January. The two airports were closed in mid-March as the country went into a lockdown. The lockdown was gradually lifted by mid-May. Authorities had planned to reopen to international flights in August, but the decision had to be delayed due to a rising number of coronavirus cases abroad. In October, Sri Lanka was hit by a resurgence of the virus, further delaying the airports' reopening. Sri Lanka has confirmed 38,059 virus cases, including 183 deaths.
— Japan is reinstating an entry ban on most new entrants from Britain in a bid to prevent the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus detected in the U.K. The move comes as Japan struggles to slow its latest spike in virus cases. On Oct. 1, Japan started allowing foreign visitors with guarantors into the country as exceptions, but the measure will be indefinitely suspended starting Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said. The ministry said Wednesday that it will also suspend a fast-track program designed to allow Japanese nationals and foreigners with resident permits to be exempt from 14-day quarantine requirement. Japan’s entry ban for foreign nationals without resident status from more than 130 countries, including other European nations, remains in place. Beginning Sunday, Japanese nationals returning from Britain after staying there for up to a week will be required to test negative for the virus 72 hours ahead of the trip and self-isolate for 14 days after returning home, the ministry said.
— Hong Kong approved new regulations that would allow the emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the city’s leader. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said in a news conference on Wednesday that new regulations would empower the city’s health minister to approve the use of vaccines in the city. Hong Kong plans to offer vaccinations for free to its 7.5 million residents, and Lam said that the government has reached agreements to obtain 22.5 million doses of vaccines from AstraZeneca, Chinese firm Sinovac and Fosun Pharma, the Chinese company that will collaborate with BioNTech to supply vaccines to the city. The government is currently looking for another supply of 7.5 million doses from a fourth company to ensure adequate supply, Lam said.