SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Korea Bizwire) — 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.
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, although the health ministry said it too can’t abandon its policy.
“Increasing the number of medical students has been under consideration for a long time and had been the center of talks with the medical community,” said ministry spokesman Son Young-rae.
He said demands being made by doctors call for nullifying all the social consensus built up so far on this issue and cannot be accepted as the government has to respect discussions that have taken place so far.
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.”
The government may consider ordering striking doctors to go back to work under medical laws if a prolonged strike threatens the life and safety of patients, the health ministry said.
If striking doctors do not follow the order, they could have their licenses cancelled or receive up to three years in jail or a penalty of up to 30 million won (US$25,240), it said.
A petition calling for the striking doctors to stop their action has gathered nearly 200,000 signatures.
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.