South Korea's prime minister and defence minister apologised as hundreds of Covid-19-infected sailors were flown to Seoul on Tuesday after a navy destroyer patrolling the waters off Africa was found to be riddled with the coronavirus.
Almost 250 of the 301 unvaccinated crew aboard the destroyer Munmu the Great were infected, sparking a public furore at the government's failure to protect those serving abroad.
The whole crew arrived home on Tuesday after the government carried out an emergency air evacuation, the defence ministry said.
"I apologise for having failed to take better care of the health of our soldiers who devoted themselves to the country," Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told an intra-agency Covid-19 meeting as he promised treatment and recovery support for the crew, 12 of whom were in a critical condition.
Defence Minister Suh Wook apologised for not immunising the crew before they departed for the Gulf of Aden in early February on an eight-month counter-piracy mission, and said he would examine anti-virus policies for all overseas military units.
The rare double apology underscored simmering anger in South Korea over the handling of the pandemic as the fourth wave of infections sweeps through the country with just 13% of the 52 million population fully inoculated amid vaccine shortages.
The destroyer left South Korea just a couple of weeks before officials kicked off a national vaccination programme. Authorities decided that inoculating at sea would not be feasible due to limited emergency responses and cold storage requirements for some vaccines, the defence ministry said.
But opposition lawmakers said the government should have sought help from other countries or replaced the crew with vaccinated personnel, and urged President Moon Jae-in to apologise and fire Suh.
"The government revealed its own incompetence by giving lame excuses such as transport issues, that they didn't have diplomatic power to secure cooperation from nearby countries," said Kim Ki-Hyeon, floor leader of the main opposition People Power party.
Moon ordered improved measures to ensure the health and safety of troops and diplomats stationed abroad.
Opposition lawmakers also blamed poor initial responses for aggravating the outbreak onboard the destroyer. A sailor who first reported symptoms on July 2 was only given cold medicine.
The military initially used less accurate antigen testing kits and only began using full-scale polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests when six members were confirmed to be infected on July 15, said Han Ki-ho, an opposition People Party lawmaker.
Health authorities said they would conduct full PCR tests on all the crew members. The critically ill will be hospitalised and others infected will be taken to treatment centres. The minority who tested negative will be retested and held in isolation at military facilities.
They were replaced on the ship by a 200-strong immunised crew who will steer it home over the next 50 days.
South Korea is battling its worst-ever Covid-19 wave while struggling to turbocharge its vaccination campaign amid global supply shortages and shipment delays. read more
It tackled previous Covid-19 waves fairly successfully, aided by a massive tracing and testing system. But only 31.7% of the population had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Monday, well below many other advanced nations.
Daily infections had risen to 1,681 by 9 p.m. on Tuesday, the record highest daily count, but the cases would add up in the next three hours, Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korea has reported a total number of 180,481 cases as of midnight on Monday, with 2,059 deaths.