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Seoul mayor's self-test kit plan faces widespread opposition

Medical experts say kits are not reliable, government argues the measure is hasty

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon gives a press briefing on COVID-19 at the Seoul City Hall on Monday. (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon gives a press briefing on COVID-19 at the Seoul City Hall on Monday. (Yonhap)
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon’s idea of using self-test kits as part of a “Seoul-type social distancing” is facing opposition from medical experts, the ruling party and the central government, who question their effectiveness.

On Monday, Oh proposed a plan to allow customers to enter restaurants, bars and karaoke late at night after conducting self-tests using kits. This could help ease restrictions on business hours, allowing nightlife entertainment businesses to remain open until midnight, pubs until 11 p.m. and restaurants until 10 p.m.

Oh said the kits are actively being used in the US, the UK and Germany and called on the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety to expedite their approval for use.

The self-test kit is similar to the kit currently used for rapid antigen tests at COVID-19 testing centers nationwide, which use nasal swabs to collect samples.

Oh said customers could be allowed to enter nightlife establishments if they test negative and that it would only take 10 to 20 minutes to work. He said it would be a win-win situation, as it would protect civilians while also allowing business owners to maintain their livelihoods.

However, the new mayor’s proposals drew mixed reactions from medical experts, who raised doubts about the effectiveness.

“Most (medical) experts have raised doubts. Few people approve of it. Self-test kits are less reliable, and when ordinary people do it, the reliability gets even lower,” professor Lee Jae-gap of Hallym University Medical Center told The Korea Herald.

“Why do we need to spend tens of billions of won on a kit that lacks credibility? When a customer is tested negative through the kit, they may feel safe and take off their masks during karaoke.”

On the other hand, Chun Eun-mi, a professor at Ewha Womans University Medical Center, who has insisted on the introduction of self-test kits from last year, said the test reliability increases when a person gets a test and a retest within 24-36 hours.

She also said, “The over-the-counter kit is easy to use (unlike some argue). People can conveniently use it like a pregnancy kit when they have it at home.”

The ruling party and the central government, which have insisted on maintaining current strict social distancing rules, also raised concerns.

Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-chul said in a radio interview Tuesday morning the city should be more cautious in using self-testing kits at restaurants and bars.

“The test can be used as a supplement. When people immediately take off their mask, drink and talk just because they test negative, all people (there) can be infected,” he said.

He also called into question Oh’s differential application of business hour curfews by industry.

“In order to work well in the field, employers and customers must comply with social distancing rules, but I think it won’t be easy when they drink.”

His ministry would have to approve the tests for the plan to proceed.

Kwon said if the Seoul Metropolitan Government decides to push ahead with the plan, there is no way for the government to prevent it, but added, “When (the measures) are done independently, the risk factors can increase.”

Ruling Democratic Party spokesperson Kang Sun-woo also said in a statement on the day Oh’s measure can send a confusing message.

“Oh says it is a way to protect both the people’s livelihood and social distancing, but most experts are critical. The hasty mitigation of social distancing measures could threaten the people’s livelihood. You have to judge carefully,” she said.

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)



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