South Korea's daily infections top 8,000 in a first driven by Omicron

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  • Omicron spreads despite extension of tough distancing rules
  • Small business owners protest to demand compensation
  • Fears of a new wave as Lunar New Year spurs travel

SEOUL, Jan 25 (Reuters) - South Korea's daily new coronavirus infections topped 8,000 for the first time on Tuesday, as the highly contagious Omicron variant spreads rapidly, despite the extension of tough social distancing rules.

The figure of 8,571 on Monday exceeded the previous peak of 7,848 in December, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said, as Omicron became dominant in the country last week, though it is less deadly than previous variants.

Small business owners with shaven heads held a protest urging the government to lift the curbs, which include a 9 p.m. curfew for diners, as they sought compensation for losses.

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"I haven't been able to pay monthly rent, so I'm facing an eviction suit and had to fire employees," said Yang Hee-kyoung, one of the group of 300 protesters.

"I have no life," added Yang, who runs a bar in the southern city of Busan.

Other demonstrators were tearful as they stood before a banner that sought "realistic compensation" for COVID-19 losses.

South Korea's tough regimen of vaccine passes limits unvaccinated people to dining out alone, or making use of takeout or delivery services.

It reinstated tougher distancing curbs last month as record daily infections and critically ill patients threatened to swamp the medical system before Omicron drove a rebound last week off daily tallies that almost halved to about 4,000.

The surge has fuelled worries about chances of a new wave of infections ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that begins on Saturday, when tens of millions travel nationwide to meet families. read more

"It is no different from adding fuel to raging flames if many people move around the country and meet each other," said Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, who has urged against travel and gatherings during the break.

Health officials said Omicron would probably account for more than 90% of new infections within two to three weeks, while daily numbers could reach 20,000 to 30,000 or more.

From Wednesday, mandatory isolation for the vaccinated will be cut to seven days instead of 10, in a bid to free up resources for those who are critically ill.

The extended curbs triggered a backlash from small business owners, while a court ordered temporary exemption for teenagers and large stores from vaccine mandates in the capital, Seoul as a legal battle heats up between the government and citizens.

South Korea, with a population of 52 million, has a tally of 749,979 infections and a death toll of 6,588, in what has largely been a COVID-19 mitigation success story.

More than 95% of adults are fully vaccinated with nearly 58% having received a booster dose, KDCA data showed.

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Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Dogyun Kim and Daewoung Kim; Editing by Richard Pullin and Clarence Fernandez

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