With the country having detected its first cases of Britain’s new coronavirus variant, President Moon Jae-in has denied accusations that the South Korea government is not yet prepared for the start of its vaccination campaign.

The new variant is more transmissible than others currently circulating, according to health experts. It was found in three people who had flown to South Korea from London on December 22, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency stated on Monday.

Seoul is extending a ban on direct flights from Britain for another week until January 7, officials said, adding that passengers arriving from the UK and South Africa will be required to undergo testing before departure.

Meanwhile, President Moon has dismissed criticism that South Korea’s Covid-19 vaccine procurement policy had been slow. Concerns that the country might not yet have secured enough vaccines, or that they would arrive too late, were not true, he said.

“We are proceeding [with the program] smoothly in accordance with our original policy,” the president stressed. The government had put a special support system into operation “several months earlier,” he noted, explaining that the country had “already secured enough volume” of vaccines.

Moon said the authorities would be able to begin offering inoculation shots in February. On Sunday, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced it would shorten the vaccine approval period to just 40 days, as opposed to the usual 180. Medical staff and workers at elderly care facilities are at the top of the priority list.

South Korea has reported a total of 57,680 coronavirus cases, and 819 deaths, and Seoul is accelerating its efforts to acquire additional doses of vaccines in preparation for an emergency situation.

Health authorities have already signed contracts with AstraZeneca, Janssen, and Pfizer to obtain vaccines for a total of 36 million people, and negotiations are continuing with Moderna about vaccines for 10 million more. The president also pledged to support vaccine development by domestic drugs makers to achieve “vaccine sovereignty.”

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