Downtown Seoul is uncharacteristically empty over the New Year's holiday weekend last year. Things may be no better 12 months later. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – Plans by a pandemic weary South Korea – the second nation after China to suffer an outbreak of Covid-19 – to finally exit restrictions have been put on indefinite hold.

Both President Moon Jae-in and national health authorities said Thursday that new anti-virus measures are required, as the country’s plans to wind up social distancing rules and return to normalcy by the end of January are put on indefinite hold.

New infections and the numbers of those who are seriously ill with the disease both hit record highs Thursday: 5,266 cases and 733 patients in critical condition.

The former is a massive jump from late October, when daily news caseloads were hovering around 2,000 and broke the prior record of 5,123 cases, which had been set the previous day. The latter is raising the pressure on the national health system, given that 80% of ICU beds are now occupied.

Yet another woe is the arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Five cases of the mutation, believed to be a hugely transmissible strain, were detected on Thursday.

And all this is underway despite near-universal mask usage and the success of the national vaccination drive, with 79.3% of the population fully inoculated. According to an analysis in the scientific journal Nature, most estimates for the achievement of herd immunity are 60-75% of a population immunized and/or vaccinated.

South Korea – where health authorities have been striving to achieve that throughout most of 202 – has passed the magic number. But Covid-19 is stubbornly refusing to respect these metrics.

Turning back the clock

President Moon Jae-in – speaking at what might be considered an appropriate venue, a national prayer breakfast – said Thursday: “The path toward a phased return to normalcy is not smooth, and risks over the new Omicron variant are growing.”

Nursing home workers wait to be vaccinated in Seoul. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

On November 29, Moon told the nation to roll up their sleeves yet again as the need for booster jabs becomes clear.

“A third shot is not an additional shot, but a basic shot,” the president said. “People need to change the way they understand vaccination … an inoculation will be complete if they receive a third shot.”

Earlier this week, Moon announced that the ongoing transition to a national “living with Covid” strategy was being halted indefinitely. Only the first phase of a three-phase plan, set for completion at the end of January, has so far been instituted.

And not only are phases two and three now on indefinite hold, phase one is also being rolled back.

From Friday, all international arrivals will be required to undergo mandatory quarantine for 10 days, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. An early casualty of that is supergroup BTS, now in the US. The boys will, local media revealed, be unable to join the national 2021 Mnet Asian Music Awards as they will be in quarantine.

Earlier this week, South Korea banned direct entry from nine nations in Africa.

There appears to be some dissension within an under-pressure government over how to proceed.

Rather than a “drastic tightening” of social distancing rules, the government will “fine-tune” current measures, a senior presidential secretary for communication told the media.

President Moon Jae-in told the nation to roll up their sleeves yet again. Photo: Handout

Earlier in the day, health authorities had announced that they were considering a return to “Level 4” social distancing guidelines – which had only been lifted at the beginning of November.

A joyless holiday beckons

That return would, among other things, require all restaurants, cafes and bars to close at 10pm and would limit the number of people recreating together after 6pm to only two.

With the year-end holiday season just getting underway, that measure would deal yet another blow to the country’s once lively food, beverage and after-hours sectors, reeling from two years of on-again, off-again social distancing restrictions.

There is already widespread frustration – audible in chatter in coffee shops, mainstream media and social media – at changes to practices that have been implemented due to Covid-19, and new habits that have changed lifestyle options.

There is vexation circulating about the early last-order times that have become the new norm in eateries across Seoul. Another complaint that has surfaced since social distancing guidelines were lifted last month is the extreme difficulty of getting taxis, whose numbers have dropped because of the pandemic, in and around the city’s many nightlife districts.

Amid all this gloom, local media are reporting that increasing numbers of people are calling off year-end gatherings and reverting to working from home.