Seoul: Health officials in South Korea ordered thousands of striking doctors to return to work as the country counted its 13th straight day of triple-digit jumps in coronavirus cases.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said those who refuse could have their licences suspended or revoked, or even face a prison term of less than three years.
Doctors in the greater Seoul area joined physicians in other parts of the country in a three-day strike starting Wednesday against government plans to boost the number of medical students.
The walkouts have forced major hospitals in Seoul to reduce working hours or delay some surgeries, according to Yonhap news agency.
“The government will sternly respond to any collective action that hold people’s lives and safety hostage amid the COVID-19 crisis,” Park said.
The Health Ministry said more than 2,000 medical facilities nationwide had reported their intention to close Wednesday after doctors’ groups, including the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Intern Resident Association, expressed dissatisfaction over negotiations with government officials.
The government wants to increase the number of medical students by 4,000 over the next decade, saying it’s critical for dealing with crises like COVID-19 and reducing health-care gaps between the highly developed Seoul area and the rest of the country.
Doctors’ groups say the country already has enough physicians competing in a cut-throat market. They say the government should instead use its financial resources to improve the compensation of trainees and encourage them to move to areas outside Seoul where health professionals are more needed.
South Korea’s Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention reported 320 new cases of COVID-19, including 237 from the Seoul region, which has been the centre of a viral resurgence in recent weeks. Health workers have struggled to stem transmissions linked to churches, schools, restaurants and door-to-door salespeople.