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(4th LD) Despite virus spread, doctors stage strike over plan to increase medical students

All News 15:55 August 21, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with stance by doctors on strike in 3rd para, minor edits in para 6; CHANGES top photo)

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of trainee doctors in South Korea went on strike Friday to protest the government's plan to increase the number of medical students, drawing public criticism amid fears of nationwide spread of the new coronavirus.

Trainee doctors have staged a limited strike since early this month after the government announced its plan to boost the number of medical students by 4,000 over the next decade to better cope with public health crises.

Despite the growing calls to return to work amid the pandemic, the Korea Medical Association (KMA) made clear the government must first scrap its reform plans before the strikes are called off. The KMA said doctors will stage the three-day walkout set for next week as planned.

Trainee doctors holding signs denouncing the government medical reform plan take part in a strike at Ajou University Hospital in Suwon, south of Seoul, on Aug. 21, 2020. (Yonhap)

Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip criticized doctors for continuing strikes despite the steep jump in virus infections in the greater capital area, which showed signs of spreading nationwide.

The government will sternly deal with the strike by doctors "in accordance with law and principle," Kim said.

Kim reiterated that the government is ready to start talks with doctors to discuss the plan to boost the number of medical students if doctors return to their duties and cancel the strike.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun also expressed regret, saying that, "The doctors, who should protect the lives of the people in the serious situation as COVID-19 is spreading again, have begun the collective action."

A petition calling for the striking doctors to stop their action has gathered nearly 200,000 signatures.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun speaks during an interagency meeting on the new coronavirus response at the government office complex in Seoul on Aug. 21, 2020. (Yonhap)

The Korean Intern and Resident Association (KIRA) said the latest protest took place with fourth-year residents working at large hospitals going on strike first, followed by third-year trainee doctors Saturday and first- and second-year residents Sunday.

All trainee doctors working at emergency rooms will also all go on strike starting Friday for an indefinite period of time, it said.

Major hospitals, such as Seoul Asan Medical Center and Samsung Medical Center, put off non-critical surgery.

In addition to regular medical treatment, coronavirus screening centers around the country may have to cut back on the number of people they can check, as trainee doctors have been assigned to such facilities.

The country added 324 more COVID-19 cases, including 315 local infections, raising the total caseload to 16,670, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The tally was the highest since March 8 when the daily virus cases reached 367.

The number of daily infections has been in the triple digits since Aug. 14, when 103 cases were reported, About 1,900 cases have been newly identified in the past eight days.

A doctor walks through a hallway at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital on Aug. 21, 2020, as trainee doctors start a walkout to protest the government's medical sector reform measures. (Yonhap)


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