South Korea posts fewest COVID-19 cases in three weeks after tightening distancing

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea recorded 168 new coronavirus cases as of midnight Friday, posting the lowest daily tally in three weeks after imposing stricter social distancing rules to blunt a second wave of infections.

FILE PHOTO: Visitors wearing masks to avoid the spread of COVID-19 fill out a form which is mandatory to get into a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, August 26, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

The total infections rose to 21,010, with 333 deaths, according to the data published by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday.

Friday’s new cases were the lowest since a major outbreak emerged from a Christian church whose members attended a large political rally on Aug. 15.

The daily tallies have been hovering below 200 over the past three days after peaking at 441 late last week, a sign that tougher social distancing curbs implemented last Sunday have begun taking effect.

The measures included an unprecedented step of curbing the operation of eateries in the Seoul metropolitan area, where the current spread is concentrated, banning onsite dining after 9 p.m. and limiting coffee and bakery franchises to takeout and delivery all day.

The government on Friday extended the rules until Sept. 13, saying more time is needed for sharper drops in new infections.

“The numbers are indeed on a downward trend but it’s too early for us to be at ease,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told a meeting on Saturday.

The efforts to dampen the ongoing outbreak have been complicated by a strike of some 16,000 interns and resident doctors who oppose the government’s plans to reform the medical sector to better handle future epidemics.

The country’s top medical body agreed on Friday with the government to end the walkout, only to face an immediate backlash from trainee doctors who rejected the deal and continued the strike.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun urged the doctors to accept the deal and return to work during a visit to a COVID-19 treatment centre in Seoul on Saturday.

The trainee physicians are expected to hold a meeting to discuss next steps as early as Monday.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Tom Hogue