South Korea said Sunday it will bar foreigners who have been in China's Hubei Province in the past two weeks from entering the country in a drastic measure to stem further spread of the new coronavirus here.
The entry ban, which applies to all foreigners who have passed through Hubei since Jan. 21, will take effect at midnight Tuesday, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a hastily arranged meeting to discuss measures against the novel virus.
"We have to block off transmission paths across local communities even more tightly," Chung said. "We could be in for a long haul, and have to come up with mid- to long-term responses to the worst-case scenarios."
As part of the measure, the government plans to minimize entries from China by tightening the issuance of visas and is considering suspending short-term visas for travel, the health minister said in a separate briefing.
Those arriving from China, including both foreign and South Korean nationals, will go through a separate immigration process in which they have to submit their passport numbers and contact information.
They will be only allowed to enter once the phone number they have submitted is verified at the scene.
The measure also includes heightening the country's travel alert level for China from "restraint" to "withdrawal recommendation," the third highest in its four-tier travel warning system. Visits to China for tourism will be banned accordingly.
The measure is intended to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which broke out in Wuhan, Hubei, in December and has since reached South Korea and other nations around the globe.
The United States and Japan are among other countries to have issued a similar entry ban.
So far, South Korea has reported 15 virus cases, some of which are believed to be the result of human transmission.
Chung said South Koreans returning from the virus-hit province will be required to spend 14 days in self-quarantine. In addition, the visa-free program for foreign travelers to the southern resort island of Jeju will be temporarily suspended.
The move, the first time the government has suspended the visa-free program since its launch in 2002, is expected to affect Jeju the most.
Around 797,300 Chinese nationals visited the southern resort island on a visa-free program last year, accounting for 98 percent of all tourists whose visas were waived.
The number of Chinese visitors has declined recently, however, with boarding rates on flights connecting Jeju to China slumping to 22.5 percent on Jan. 28 from 86.3 percent on Jan. 21.
South Korea flew back around 700 of its citizens from Wuhan over the weekend, and they have been quarantined at two separate facilities in Asan and Jincheon, both south of Seoul. One of the returning residents has been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Chung said those in the quarantine shelters are being checked twice each day.
South Korea on Sunday reported three more cases of the novel coronavirus, with 87 people in quarantine for detailed checks, amid concerns over person-to-person transmission.
Of the 15 confirmed cases, nine came from the epicenter of the virus outbreak, with the remainder believed to have resulted from human transmission, according to the country's health authorities.
Since Jan. 3, Seoul said it has screened 429 people for potential contagion, 327 of whom turned out not to be infected, with 87 undergoing tests. It said 683 people who had been in close proximity to virus-infected patients are being monitored carefully.
The authorities said that as of early Sunday, the new coronavirus has been reported in 26 countries and has affected over 14,500 people. It said the death toll stands at 304, with all fatalities occurring in China.