South Korea’s government has told young doctors they had until the end of February to return to work or risk being punished for staging a week-long protest that has disrupted services for patients at several major hospitals. Official figures show that more than 10,000 junior doctors – 80.5 per cent of the trainee workforce – had walked off the job to protest a government plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical school in a bid to address what authorities say is a shortage of doctors that is set to worsen in one of the world’s fastest ageing societies.

The protest has forced hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures. “Considering the gravity of the situation, the government issues the last plea,” safety minister Lee Sang-min said at the opening of a task-force meeting, adding that chaos was mounting in hospitals and emergency services had reached a “dangerous situation”. “If you return to the hospital you left behind by February 29, you won’t be held responsible for what has already happened,” he said. “We urge you to remember your voice will be heard loudly and most effectively when you are by the side of patients.” As of Monday, 9,006 trainee doctors had not shown up for work.

The government has previously warned that it could take legal action against doctors who do not comply with a back-to-work order, including prosecution, possible arrest and stripping them of their medical licences. The young doctors who are protesting say the government should first address pay and working conditions before trying to increase the number of physicians. Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said those who did not return by March 1 would face a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licence among other legal action. Senior doctors and private practitioners have not joined the walkout but have held rallies urging the government to scrap its plan to boost medical school quotas.

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