SEOUL -- South Korea is considering raising social distancing restrictions to the highest level as COVID-19 cases surge and President Moon Jae-in's approval rate slumps to a record low over perceived tardiness in securing vaccines.
As new daily infections hit a new high of 1,030 on Sunday, Moon asked his cabinet at an emergency coronavirus meeting to prepare for the worst scenario of going up to Phase 3 -- the top level in a five-tier system.
While not as stringent than the lockdown measures taken in places such as the U.S. and Europe, Phase 3 would shut down large sectors of the economy. People would be asked to stay at home in principle, minimizing contact with others. All but essential personnel would be asked to work at home, and schools would be closed and only online classes permitted.
On Monday, the government ordered schools to close from Tuesday in Seoul and surrounding areas -- a region currently under the second-highest Phase 2.5. The rest of the country is under Phase 2.
"It is a critical moment to consider raising the social distancing level to Phase 3 if we cannot stem the outbreak," said Moon, referring to the highest alert level. "The authorities should make a decision if it is unavoidable."
Moon apologized to the nation on Saturday for failing to stop the recent rise in cases despite repeated raising of social distancing rules repeatedly. "I am sorry to think of people with anxiety and concerns," Moon posted on Twitter.
Moon's approval rating fell to record low of 37.1% in the second week of December, down from 37.4% a week earlier, according to a Realmeter survey. Gallup Korea also said Moon's rating hit a new low of 38% in the same period.
Gallup said that respondents negative to Moon pointed to housing policy and poor handling of COVID-19 as key reasons for their disapproval. The pollster said a growing number of people have been complaining about the president's public health policy over the past month.
The main opposition People Power Party said the government should place priority on vaccinating people as soon as possible, because South Korea is lagging other countries that have already approved vaccines.
The U.K. started to vaccine people last week for the first time. The first U.S. shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine were moved on trucks and planes on Sunday.
"The vaccinations should come first. ... The government says that we can inject vaccines as early as February or March next year. It is because the government has ignored experts' opinion that vaccines are urgent," Bae Joon-young, a spokesperson for PPP, said in a statement on Monday.
South Korea confirmed 718 new cases on Monday. Total infections reached 43,484 with 587 deaths.