(ATTN: MODIFIES 2nd para; UPDATES with additional remarks on social safety net in paras 5-6, vaccination in last 3 paras; ADDS photo)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Jan. 25 (Yonhap) -- President Moon Jae-in instructed his government Monday to explore "institutional" ways to compensate the self-employed and owners of small businesses in South Korea for their losses that are attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call represented Moon's first public message on whether relevant legislation is necessary, which has emerged as a hot political issue ahead of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan.
The president called on the government and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to discuss ways to "institutionalize loss compensation for small business owners and the self-employed within a certain range that (state) finance can afford" in connection with social distancing restrictions. He was speaking in front of pool reporters at the start of a Cheong Wa Dae session to receive briefings from the local health authorities on their 2021 policies.
Attendees included top officials from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, as well as DP leader Lee Nak-yon.
"It's very important and urgent to protect the lives of the people from the economic and social blow caused by the coronavirus," Moon stressed.
He added that a social safety net is desperately needed to guard the people from unforeseen impacts via both short-term and "fundamental" measures.
The DP has proposed a set of bills on providing financial support in earnest to those coronavirus-hit small businesses, including cafes and restaurants nationwide, in addition to sporadic emergency cash handouts.
The finance ministry has shown a negative stance toward the move, citing the budget problem.
Critics of the left-leaning Moon administration accused the ruling bloc of attempting once again to use massive budgets for a political purpose in advance of the spring elections.
Regarding the coronavirus vaccination plan, meanwhile, Moon reiterated his expectation that herd immunity would be reached by November at the latest once shots get under way next month, along with the supply of treatment developed by a South Korean drugmaker once it becomes available.
Moon told the authorities to draw up the order in which people are to be immunized in a "reasonable and fair" manner, based on science, to minimize potential risks and maximize effects.
He said South Korea's coronavirus response is entering a new phase. If the past year was a time of "defense" for the country to curb the virus with social distancing rules, it is now on the threshold of a period of "countermeasures" using vaccines and treatment, according to Moon.
Even if vaccine shots begin here, a robust disease control and prevention posture should be maintained, with a new social distancing strategy in place to minimize the people's difficulties in accordance with the situation, he added.
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