Asia Today: Seoul area curbing public gatherings

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Gatherings of more than five people will be banned in South Korea’s capital region as an elevated step to suppress what authorities call an “explosive” surge in coronavirus infections.

The Seoul region is home to half of South Korea’s 51 million people and has been at the center of a recent viral resurgence. The country averaged about 960 new virus cases each day in the past week, more than 70% of them in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Acting Seoul mayor Seo Jung-hyup said Monday the ban will apply to any type of meetings including year-end parties, office dinners, birthday parties and picnics. Only weddings and funerals can follow the current rule of not more than 50 people.

He says the new restrictions will take effect from Wednesday and last until Jan. 3 in Seoul, Gyeonggi province that surrounds Seoul and Incheon city, just west of Seoul.

Seo says he knows the ban is “harsh” but stresses the current viral spread cannot be slowed without preventing transmissions among relatives and company colleagues. He says Seoul could face a lockdown if the current “explosive” surge isn’t contained.

Earlier Monday, South Korea has reported 24 more virus-related deaths in the country’s highest daily fatalities since the pandemic began. The government added a total of 926 new cases, taking the country’s total to 50,591 including 698 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— An Australian state government leader apologized for a bungled hotel quarantine program that led to most of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths. A retired judge who investigated Victoria state’s quarantine program for returned travelers criticized the use of private security guards to enforce isolation in Melbourne hotels in May and June. Victoria Premier Dan Andrews explained the quarantine system had been implemented quickly and without a pandemic rule book. “I want to apologize to the Victorian community for the very clear errors that were made in this program,” Andrews said after the report's release. The lax infection controls at two Melbourne quarantine hotels set off a wave of infections in Australia’s second-largest city while the rest of the country had been largely virus-free. Of Australia’s 908 deaths from COVID-19, 820 died in Victoria. Police now provide security at Melbourne quarantine hotels.

Meanwhile, the spread of an ongoing outbreak in Sydney’s northern beach suburbs appeared to be slowing. Of the 83 cases confirmed, only 15 were added in the past 24 hours. That's half the previous day's increase, despite more than 38,000 people being tested in the latest day, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said. She cautioned against assuming those numbers will continue to decline, saying: “In a pandemic, there is a level of volatility, so we’ll closely monitor what happens.” All 15 new cases were linked to two live music venues. The original infection is a U.S.-strain suspected to have leaked from Sydney hotel quarantine. More than 250,000 Sydney residents in the northern beaches area are under a four-day lockdown until Wednesday. Berejiklian said what restrictions continue over Christmas will be reviewed on Wednesday. All Australian states have imposed restrictions on travelers from Sydney and parts of New South Wales because of the outbreak.

— Hong Kong will ban flights from Britain after a more infectious variant of the coronavirus was found in the country, according to the city’s top health official. Hong Kong joins countries like Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands in stopping flights from Britain, after the mutated strain of the virus was found to be 70% more transmissible than usual. Health minister Sophia Chan said Monday that recent arrivals from Britain will also have to serve 21 days of quarantine, a week longer than the usual 14-day period. Two weeks of this will be served in a designated quarantine hotel, and the final week is to be served at home. As of Sunday, Hong Kong had reported a total of 8,153 infections, with 130 deaths.

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