South Korea re-imposes curbs after 79 cases reported

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It announced 79 infections yesterday, largest increase since April 5

SEOUL South Korea yesterday re-imposed a series of coronavirus social distancing measures it had eased early this month, as a series of clusters threatened to challenge its success in containing the epidemic.

Officials announced 79 new cases yesterday - taking its total to 11,344 - the largest increase since 81 cases were announced on April 5.

An outbreak at a warehouse of e-commerce firm Coupang in Bucheon city, west of Seoul, has seen 69 cases, said the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Around 4,100 workers and visitors to the building were under self-isolation, with more than 80 per cent tested so far, Vice-Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told reporters.

"We are expecting the number of new cases linked to the warehouse to continue rising until today as we wrap up related tests," he added.

The warehouse cluster appears linked to an outbreak that emerged in Seoul nightclubs and bars in early May.

Coupang, backed by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank Group, said it closed the Bucheon facility on Monday.

Yesterday it said it had also closed a facility in Goyang, in the Seoul suburbs, after an employee tested positive there.

"As soon as the employee's diagnosis was confirmed, Coupang sent home and self-quarantined employees who had contact with the employee," it said.

The new cases - mostly centred in the Seoul metropolitan area where half the South Korean population lives - prompted officials to strengthen social distancing rules that were eased on May 6.

Museums, parks and art galleries will all be closed again from Friday for two weeks, said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, while companies were urged to re-introduce flexible working, among other measures.

"We have decided to strengthen all quarantine measures in the metropolitan area for two weeks from tomorrow to June 14," he said.

Citizens were also advised to refrain from social gatherings or going to crowded places - including restaurants and bars - while religious facilities were asked to be extra vigilant with quarantine measures.

There were no new delays, however, to the phased re-opening of schools that is under way.

"The next two weeks are crucial to prevent the spread of the infection in the metropolitan area," Mr Park said, adding: "We will have to return to social distancing if we fail."

He said the government will be forced to re-impose an all-out social distancing campaign if the country sees more than 50 new cases for at least seven consecutive days.

The country endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the disease outside China, and strict social distancing had been widely observed since March.

But it appears to have brought its epidemic under control thanks to an extensive "trace, test and treat" programme. - AFP, REUTERS