South Korea on herd immunity and Covid-19 travel bubble programs

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South Korea is looking to open up its economy and work on travel bubble programs given its relative success in controlling the spread of Covid-19, its deputy prime minister told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

The government plans to boost consumption and further stimulate the economy in the second half of this year – and policies will be in place to achieve this, said Hong Nam-ki, who is also South Korea’s economy minister. and Finance.

“I would say the current government has been relatively successful in both infection control and vaccination,” he told CNBC’s Chery Kang on Friday, according to a CNBC translation of his Korean remarks. “On the basis of the achievements, the current government now intends to promote economic growth while maintaining such health measures. “

He said South Korea is aiming for herd immunity by November, which would mean the virus can no longer spread quickly because most of the population will either be fully vaccinated or become immune to infections.

However, health experts have started to question whether herd immunity is possible, even with vaccines. A number of countries said in 2020 that they hoped to achieve collective immunity, but almost all have since abandoned this strategy and none are known to have achieved it.

As of last week, 30% of South Korea’s population had been vaccinated and Hong said the country could reach 70% by September.

Our plan now is to achieve collective immunity by November – but in my personal opinion, we can turn the schedule up.

Hong Nam-ki

Deputy Prime Minister of South Korea

The country reported more than 155,500 cases and at least 2,015 deaths on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University – relatively controlled numbers compared to most Asian countries.

In contrast, India – which has the highest number of cases in Asia – officially reported more than 30.2 million cases on Monday, according to Hopkins. Indonesia has 2.11 million cases while the Philippines has nearly 1.4 million cases, according to the data.

“Our plan now is to achieve collective immunity by November – but in my opinion, we will be able to push back the schedule,” Hong said.

“If the vaccination goes as planned, we believe the Covid-19 situation will be brought under control. Then, measures to support consumption and economic recovery can take place without interruption from July. And we will push in that direction.

However, if the pandemic were to worsen, it will be difficult to push forward these policies aimed at boosting growth, he warned.

Travel bubble?

The South Korean government plans to support travel bubble programs for those who are fully vaccinated, Hong said. A travel bubble is a pre-arranged agreement with another country that states that travelers from both countries will be allowed to travel under quarantine if certain conditions are met – such as negative Covid tests or full vaccination.

However, whether the travel bubble occurs depends on the progress of vaccination and discussions with other countries, he said, declining to name those countries.

In early June, the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times reported that South Korea was exploring the possibilities of travel bubbles with a few countries, including Singapore and Taiwan, to allow non-quarantine travel for those who have been vaccinated.

“I think more countries will be on the list of countries that are in demand for travel, depending on health conditions, vaccination rates and the level of convenience of immigration,” Hong told CNBC.

“I think we need to continue to work with private tour operators to look at the virus situation to decide exactly which countries,” he added.

For now, one initiative that citizens can at least indulge in could be “flights to nowhere,” a destinationless concept that a few countries introduced during the pandemic.

“Even though you can’t go overseas, there were flights offered without landing,” Hong said. “Passengers could fly to Japan, hover over the Japanese sky and then come back without landing. A lot of people have shown interest in this and it has been used a lot,” he said, referring to to such flights which were introduced in the South. Korea last year.

“So if the health situation improves and the vaccination campaign accelerates further, we think we would go in (that) direction.”

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