(ATTN: UPDATES with details of Seoul's patient situation in last 3 paras)
SEOUL, Dec. 18 (Yonhap) -- Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Friday the government will thoroughly prepare for the potential toughening of social distancing restrictions and make a swift and "bold" decision when it's necessary.
"While making meticulous preparations, the government will make a bold decision at a time when (an elevation of the distancing rule) is deemed necessary," Chung said during an interagency meeting on the COVID-19 pandemic response at Seoul City Hall.
Health authorities raised social distancing measures to Level 2.5, the second highest in the five-tier system, in the greater Seoul area early last week, with most other regions under Level 2, but the virus has continued to spread across the nation
Chung acknowledged the public's interest toward Level 3 distancing was high, with the daily average number of new coronavirus cases topping 900 over the past week.
The government was collecting a broad range of opinions from involved state agencies, local governments and experts over the possibility of enforcing tougher distancing rules as the measure should be taken "swiftly" in case it's needed, according to Chung.
The prime minister also underscored the potential economic fallout from adopting Level 3 distancing, pointing out that as many as 2 million retail business sites would be subject to either business closures or restrictions.
"We need to gather sufficient public consensus (on enforcing Level 3 social distancing), as the scheme itself would be meaningless without the public's participation," Chung said.
Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus patients in Seoul waiting at home for hospital beds stood at 580 as of the start of Friday, exceeding the number of newly confirmed cases of 398, according to Seoul city officials.
The rise in the number of at-home patients comes as concerns mount over the shortage of sickbeds for coronavirus patients, especially for those in critical condition.
A patient in the city's Dongdaemun Ward passed away at home Tuesday while waiting for four days to be admitted to a hospital.
The patient failed to get a sickbed despite the local health center twice making emergency requests, a source said.
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