South Korea: Doctors set to end strike amid pandemic

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South Korean doctors agreed on Friday to end a two-week strike which has complicated efforts to curb a new wave of coronavirus infections, after overnight talks over the government’s medical reform plans.

About 16,000 intern and resident doctors have been on strike since Aug. 21. Trainee doctors are the backbone of healthcare services in emergency rooms and intensive care units, and volunteer at temporary testing stations.

The doctors oppose the reform proposals, which include increasing the number of doctors, building public medical schools, allowing state insurance to cover more oriental medicine, and expanding telemedicine.

The government says the initiatives could help better deal with health crises like the coronavirus, but the doctors argued it would only deepen the concentration of physicians in cities without improving poor medical infrastructure and work conditions in rural provinces.

The government had agreed to halt the reforms and discuss them again with the industry and the parliament once the coronavirus outbreak had stabilised, according to ruling party officials who brokered the agreement.

“We take it as a pledge to drop those plans and start again from square one,” said Choi Dae-zip, president of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), during a meeting with the party officials.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun welcomed the “dramatic compromise,” saying the doctors’ return to work would help facilitate the operation of hospitals.

There were lingering signs of discord between doctors however, with a leader of a trainees’ group saying on Twitter that she was unaware of the deal. An event scheduled for Friday morning to sign an agreement between the KMA and the health ministry was postponed to the afternoon without explanation.

A KMA spokesman did not respond to queries about when the doctors will restart work.

Choi said the initial aim of blocking key elements of the reform agenda was achieved and further discussions were needed, but doctors should now resume work.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 198 new coronavirus cases as of midnight Thursday, bringing the total to 20,842 with 331 deaths. The daily tally fell below 200 for the first time in more than two weeks on Thursday, though an ongoing rise in critical cases exacerbated shortfalls in hospital beds.

The ministry had issued a back-to-work order for the doctors and filed a police complaint against several strike leaders.

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