|National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang bangs the gavel to announce the start of a plenary session at the National Assembly, Wednesday, wearing a facial mask to protect against COVID-2019 infection. The Assembly reopened earlier in the day after a 24-hour temporary shutdown to allow for disinfection operations. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min
The National Assembly passed revision bills relating to epidemic prevention and quarantine laws at a plenary session Wednesday in order to better facilitate the ongoing fight against the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The bills' passage came just hours after the Assembly reopened, having temporarily shut down for 24 hours after a man who had attended a parliamentary forum there last week later tested positive for the coronavirus.
The bills amend three legal acts ― the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act, the Quarantine Act and the Medical Services Act.
According to the revisions, those vulnerable to infectious diseases such as children or elderly citizens housed at welfare facilities must be provided with facial masks when the nation's health alert level is put at "yellow" ― the second level in the four-tier system ― or higher.
The revised acts will allow the authorities to fine suspected infected patients who refuse testing up to 3 million won; and patients who do not abide by quarantine or hospitalization orders up to 10 million won, or impose a prison sentence on them of up to 1 year.
The number of health and welfare ministry officials assigned to deal with epidemiological investigations will also be increased to 100 from the current 30.
The revisions will allow the government to restrict exports of medicine, medical equipment and other key materials necessary for quarantine and treatment, such as facial masks and hand sanitizers, if there is a national shortage or price-gouging due to an epidemic.
Under the changes, the health ministry will also be able to request the justice ministry to ban the entry of foreigners coming into Korea from a country where an infectious disease has reached epidemic proportions. Medical staff or institutions will also be legally obliged to report to local governments or regional public health centers when they discover patients with suspected infectious diseases during treatment.
While revisions usually take effect several months after passage, some of the changes approved Wednesday will come into effect immediately at the request of Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo.
The submission of the revisions was initially scheduled for a plenary session Monday, but was delayed after the Assembly closed temporarily for disinfection operations. The shutdown came after a man, who had taken part in an event at a building within the Assembly compound last Friday, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. Some lawmakers who had also attended the event underwent testing for the virus, but tested negative.
The government raised the national health alert level to its highest "red," Sunday, about a month after it had raised the level to "orange," Jan. 27. The decision was made after a "super-spread" of the virus in Daegu brought a nationwide "second wave" of COVID-19 infections.