How South Korea avoided a national lockdown


  • How South Korea avoided a national lockdown

    How South Korea avoided a national lockdown
    Testing was the key to success, the country’s leading pandemic expert tells The Telegraph in an exclusive interview

    On a cold, rainy Monday in January 2020, South Korean commuters in Seoul’s main station hurried as normal to and from train platforms, crossing the packed concourse oblivious to the coming crisis that would engulf their country and the world.

    But in a backroom of the bustling transport hub, worried scientists and pharmaceutical executives had arrived from around Korea for urgent talks on how to face the emerging threat of a mysterious pneumonia-like virus now spreading in neighbouring China.

    It was January 27, and their quick decision that day to give emergency authorisation to the mass roll out of Covid-19 test kits saved thousands of lives and came to define South Korea’s success in tackling the pandemic.

    The contrast with what was going on in Britain could not have been more stark.

    On the same day, some 5,500 miles away in London, Matt Hancock, then health secretary, told parliament the risk to the UK population from Covid-19 was “low” and that, in any case, the UK was “well prepared” to deal with any cases.

    “The UK is one of the first countries in the world to have developed an accurate test for this coronavirus,” he boasted, pledging that testing could be scaled up if necessary.

    By the end of March, as Covid swept mercilessly swept through Britain’s underequipped nursing homes, those promises had already turned to dust.

    South Korea was testing five times more people per head of population than the UK, which had plunged into a lockdown and – as the Telegraph’s Lockdown Files reveal – had run dangerously short of tests.

    “No one thinks testing is going well,” George Osborne, the former chancellor, told Mr Hancock in a blunt WhatsApp message during the height of the pandemic.

    Korea, which has a similar sized but older population to the UK at 52 million, is one of just a handful of countries which can be said to have had a “good pandemic”.

    Its death rate of 61.2 people per 100,000 is four times lower than the UK’s, at 244.1 per 100,000, according to data from December 2022. While the UK locked down for at least 164 days, with some degree of variation between the home nations, South Korea avoided nationwide stay at home orders completely.

    As for its economy, South Korea’s gross domestic product (GDP) contracted 0.85 per cent in 2020 before quickly growing four percent in 2021. In contrast, Britain’s GDP shrank by 9 per cent over the same year and only returned to its pre-pandemic levels by the first quarter of 2022.

    How did South Korea do so well? What was it that marked it out from Britain and so many other western countries?