SEOUL (Reuters) – The South Korean government ramped up efforts to end a strike by thousands of the country’s doctors on Friday, as Seoul took the unprecedented step of restricting eateries in the capital in a bid to blunt a surge in coronavirus cases.
The Health Ministry extended a back-to-work order for doctors to the entire country and filed a complaint with police against at least 10 doctors it said have not abided by an order that has been in place in Seoul since Wednesday.
But the Korea Medical Association said on Friday it plans to organise a nationwide strike starting Sept. 7, for an indefinite period, unless the government drops its reforms.
The escalation in the dispute comes as South Korean officials tackle a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections. Onsite night-time dining at food outlets in the capital and Seoul metropolitan area was restricted for the first time since the beginning of the outbreak.
After aggressive tracing and testing contained a large outbreak earlier this year, the country suffered a setback this month when a church cluster spread to a political rally.
Officials reported 371 new infections as of midnight Thursday, bringing the total to 19,077, including 316 deaths.
“To protect lives and safety of the citizens in a grave crisis of nationwide coronavirus transmission, the government inevitably expanded the back-to-work order for trainee and professional doctors today nationwide,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said.
At the heart of the dispute are government plans to boost the number of medical students over several years, establish public medical schools, allow government insurance to cover more oriental medicine, and introduce more telemedicine options.
Almost 16,000 intern and resident doctors have been on strike since Aug. 21 over the government’s plans, which it said were necessary to better prepare for public health crises.
The student doctors, however, say that extra funding would be better spent improving the salaries of existing trainees, and addressing systemic issues.
“We strongly denounce the government for filing complaint for criminal charges within just a day for refusing to comply with the order,” Choi Dae-zip, president of the Korean Medical Association, told reporters in front of a Seoul police station.
Thousands of teaching hospital doctors, trainee doctors and private practice physicians began a three-day strike on Wednesday to express solidarity with the intern and resident doctors.
The intern and resident doctors form the backbone of healthcare services in emergency rooms and intensive care units, and major hospitals have reported delays and disruptions since the walkout. The striking doctors have volunteered their services at temporary testing centres to help with the outbreak.
Public opinion on strike and government response has been mixed according to polls.
“I understand the doctors, too, but now is not the time,” Lim Soon-ja, 71, a thyroid cancer patient, told Reuters outside Seoul National University Hospital.
Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) director Jeong Eun-kyeong warned that modelling indicated that if the outbreak, centred around Seoul, was not contained, cases could surge to as much as 2,000 per day.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced the government had agreed to extend Phase 2 restrictions — the second highest level — across the country for at least another week.
Coffee shops, some of which have been identified as hotspots, are restricted to takeout and delivery. Restaurants, snack bars and bakeries are not allowed to offer on-site dining between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Churches, nightclubs and most schools in the capital are already closed, and masks are mandatory in public places.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Jane Wardell)