South Korea is speeding up its launch of a public coronavirus vaccination program following the detection of its first cases of the variant linked to an infection surge in Britain.
The new variant, thought to be more transmissible than others currently circulating, was found in three people who entered South Korea from London on December 22, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Monday.
Overall the KDCA reported 808 new cases as of midnight Sunday, the lowest since a record 1241 infections on Friday.
Authorities cautioned the drop may be due to less testing over the weekend and the Christmas holiday, and said they would extend social distancing measures until early January.
South Korea's government has faced mounting domestic criticism over its vaccine procurement and rollout plans, which call for the first vaccinations to begin in the first quarter of next year, months after the United States and European Union.
Negative views of the vaccine plans was one of the leading reasons that drove President Moon Jae-in's disapproval rating to an all-time high of nearly 60 per cent, pollster Realmeter said on Monday.
Regulators will shorten the period required to approve vaccines and treatments from and average of 180 days to as little as 40 days, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced on Sunday.
An additional approval process for the distribution and sale of vaccines, which usually takes several months, will be shortened to around 20 days.
Medical workers and elderly residents will begin receiving the vaccinations in February and plans to vaccinate the broader public is accelerating, presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min said.
"The government is doing all it can to advance this time frame and is also making progress," he said.
South Korea has said it plans to buy enough doses to eventually vaccinate 46 million people or more than 85 per cent of its population.
Noh said authorities expected South Korea's population to reach a level of herd immunity through the vaccines as fast or faster than many other countries.
South Korea has reported a total of 57,680 coronavirus cases, with 819 deaths.