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

South Korea wants to open up its economy and work on travel bubble programs as it has been relatively successful 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 boost the economy in the second half of this year – and steps are being taken to achieve that goal, said Hong Nam-ki, who is also South Korea’s economy and finance minister.

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

He said that South Korea is aiming for herd immunity by November, which would mean the virus can no longer spread rapidly as most of the population is either fully vaccinated or has become immune from infection.

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

By last week, 30% of the South Korean population had received their vaccinations and Hong says the country can reach 70% by September.

Our plan now is to achieve herd immunity by November – but in my personal opinion we will be able to move the schedule forward.

Hong Nam-ki

South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister

The country has reported more than 155,500 cases and at least 2,015 deaths as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University – numbers that are relatively controlled compared to most Asian countries.

In contrast, India – with 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 case numbers, the data showed.

“Our plan now is to achieve herd immunity by November – but in my personal opinion we will be able to move the schedule forward,” said Hong.

“If the vaccination goes as planned, we believe the Covid-19 situation is under control. Then the measures to support consumption and economic recovery can be carried out without interruption from July onwards.

However, should the pandemic worsen, it would be difficult to push these growth-promoting measures, he warned.

Travel bubble?

The South Korean government plans to support travel bladder programs for fully vaccinated people, Hong said. A travel bubble is a pre-agreed agreement with another country that provides that travelers from both countries are allowed quarantine trips if certain conditions are met – such as negative Covid tests or full vaccinations.

However, whether the travel bubble will pop depends on vaccination progress and conversations with other countries, he said, declining to name those countries.

In early June, the Singaporean newspaper Straits Times reported that South Korea is exploring travel bladders with some countries, including Singapore and Taiwan, to enable quarantine-free travel for vaccinated people.

“I believe that depending on their health status, vaccination rates and the convenience of immigration, more countries will be on the list of countries in demand,” Hong told CNBC.

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

One initiative that citizens can at least indulge in for the time being could be “flights to nowhere”, a target-free concept that some countries introduced during the pandemic.

“Even if you cannot travel abroad, no landing flights have been offered,” said Hong. “Passengers could fly all the way to Japan, hover over the Japanese sky, and then come back without landing. Lots of people showed interest in it and it was used a lot, ”he said, referring to such flights that were introduced in South Korea last year.

“So if the health situation improves and the vaccination campaign accelerates more strongly, we believe that we are going in (that) direction.”

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