Strike threat by South Korean doctors fans fears of vaccine rollout disruption


FILE PHOTO: A medical worker checks the doors inside the Mobile Clinic Module outside Korea Cancer Center Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, January 8, 2021. REUTERS/Heo Ran/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) - Doctors in South Korea have threatened a protest strike against legislation to strip them of licences following criminal convictions, sparking fears about possible disruption of a coronavirus vaccination effort set to begin this week.

Healthcare workers are scheduled to receive the first batch of AstraZeneca's vaccine from Friday, as South Korea looks to protect 10 million high-risk people by July, on its way to reaching herd immunity by November.

But over the weekend, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), the largest grouping of doctors, said it would go on strike if parliament passed a bill to revoke the licences of doctors getting jail terms.

"The bill might result in ordinary, innocent doctors being stripped of their licences and falling into hell because of an accident that has nothing to do with their job, or lack of legal knowledge," spokesman Kim Dae-ha said in a statement on Monday.

Association president Choi Dae-zip has called the bill "cruel", saying its passage into law would "destroy" current cooperation with the government to treat the virus and carry out the vaccine campaign.

No date has been set yet for the strike, the KMA told Reuters, however.

The standoff stoked concern that any strike of doctors could slow the rollout at a time when authorities are scrambling to allocate medical personnel to about 250 inoculation centres and 10,000 clinics nationwide.

Discord over the bill was undesirable ahead of the vaccine rollout, the health ministry said, adding that the doctors' association was in the grip of a "misunderstanding" about it.

Parliament has been seeking to revise the Medical Service Act to ban physicians guilty of violent crimes, such as sexual abuse and murder, from practicing their skills.

Ruling party lawmakers pushing for the bill denounced the association, saying it was trying to "take public health hostage to maintain impunity from heinous crimes".

VACCINATION TIMELINE

AstraZeneca shots enough for about 750,000 people will be distributed from a production facility of SK Chemicals unit SK bioscience to immunization centres across the country from Wednesday, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) director Jeong Eun-kyeong said.

The first inoculation is set for Friday 9 a.m. (0000 GMT), Jeong told a briefing on Monday.

South Korea will begin administering the first of 117,000 doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine on Saturday to around 55,000 healthcare workers in COVID-19 treatment facilities.

The government's goal of reaching herd immunity by November will only work if the public responds in good measure to the vaccination programme and if authorities are able to secure enough doses on time, as well as control the more transmissible new variants, Jeong said.

The medical association, with nearly 140,000 members, has a long history of policy disputes with the government.

Many hospitals were depleted of staff during the pandemic last year when the group steered weeks-long walkouts over plans to boost the number of medical students, build medical schools, ease insurance coverage and increase telemedicine options.

That action spurred hundreds of thousands of Koreans to file presidential petitions urging punishment for the doctors, as polls showed 58% of respondents opposed the strike. There are no surveys yet on the latest stalemate.

Last week, a government poll showed almost 94% of 367,000 healthcare workers aged 64 or younger in priority groups said they were ready to take the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite concerns over its efficacy in older people. About 95% said they would accept Pfizer products.

South Korea reported 332 new virus infections by Sunday, taking its tally to 87,324, and a death toll of 1,562.

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps)

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting and writing by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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