(ATTN: UPDATES with health ministry's request and medical student's cancellation of test in paras 3-4, 9)
SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- Trainee doctors vowed Sunday to continue their walkout indefinitely against the government's medical reform scheme, a move that could further stretch medical staff as South Korea is struggling to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
"All trainee doctors will continue their collective action according to guidelines by an emergency task force of the Korean Intern and Resident Association," the association announced after an overnight meeting that lasted until the morning.
The health ministry pressed trainee doctors to return to work, saying what matters is to safeguard patient safety and protect the lives of people.
"We made efforts with the medical community, but it's deeply regrettable that the walkout decision was made," a health ministry official said.
On Saturday, South Korea's health authorities issued back-to-work orders to 278 striking doctors, warning of possible prison terms.
Those who do not follow the government order without a legitimate reason could have their licenses revoked and even face imprisonment of less than three years or a fine of less than 30 million won (US$25,000).
Continuing the collective action was voted down in the first round due to lack of quorum, but 134 out of 186 in the task force later voted in favor of the plan in the second round of voting that ended earlier in the day.
Adding to woes is a separate strike planned by the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents some 130,000 doctors across the country.
The KMA ended their three-day walkout last Friday, but it also said it will launch an indefinite strike on Sept. 7 unless the government withdraws its new policies, including a plan to increase the number of medical students.
Separately, the Korean Medical Student Association said 93.3 percent of 3,036 people who applied for the Korean Medical License Examination set for September and October canceled their applications in protest of the government's medical reform scheme.
As part of the country's medical workforce reform plan, the health ministry is planning to expand admission quotas at medical schools by 4,000 over the next 10 years, starting in 2022, and to open a new public medical school, as it seeks to broaden the reach of health care services.
This will increase the number of students admitted annually to medical schools to 3,458 in the 2022-2031 period from the current 3,058, according to the plan.
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