The continuing surge in Covid-19 infections has forced South Korea to halt its strategy of pandemic-related relaxing of restrictions and reintroduce curbs on public gatherings and business hours.

The new restrictions will take effect on Saturday and last until January 2, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum announced on Thursday.The maximum allowed number of people at private gatherings will be reduced to four, while a 9pm curfew will be imposed on cafes, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and other entertainment venues. Movie theaters and internet cafes were told to close at 10pm.

Schools in the greater Seoul area will switch more to remote learning and operate in a limited capacity, the education ministry said.

The tougher regulations mark a reversal of the previous relaxation of some restrictions under South Korea’s ‘living with Covid’ plan. Health officials warned that the implementation of the plan could be delayed or rolled back in case of a surge in infections.

The number of newly recorded daily cases has remained in the quadruple digits since July, and first shot past 7,000 last week. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) logged 7,622 new cases on Thursday. The number of patients in critical condition has reached 989, a new record high since the pandemic began last year.

“We will be able to overcome this critical moment only if we quickly bring the spread under control through strong social distancing measures,” Kim said on Thursday, urging people to avoid crowded events during the New Year celebrations.