South Korea is battling a steep rise in Covid-19 infections. On Sunday, 631 new cases were reported in one day, the highest number in nine months.
The country was widely praised for its virus response earlier this year, with aggressive testing and contact tracing but the authorities have been struggling in recent weeks. The number of active cases in South Korea now stands at 7,873.
Health minister Park Neung-hoo said there was a risk of the virus spreading if nothing was done. “We concluded that this is a dangerous situation on the verge of expanding into a nationwide pandemic,” he told Reuters news agency.
Gatherings of more than 50 will be banned in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas from Tuesday, while gyms and karaoke bars will be closed.
On Saturday, Seoul’s municipal government introduced a curfew, with most businesses including restaurants, bars and cafes being forced to close at 9pm.
Restrictions will also be tightened in other parts of the country, Park said, but at a lower level. They will last at least three weeks.
Reuters reported last week that asymptomatic patients are driving the surge in new cases in South Korea, frustrating efforts to control transmission.
Cold weather is further accelerating the spread as more meetings and activities are held indoors in places with poor ventilation, while the risk of unwitting infections by symptomless patients has increased.
There have now been 37,546 cases in total, and 545 deaths.