(LEAD) Mass walkout by trainee doctors nears deadline as health services crippled

A mass walkout by trainee doctors is approaching a deadline set by the government to return to work, as medical services have been crippled with both the government and junior doctors showing little signs of backing down. About 9,000 trainee doctors walked off their jobs for the ninth day in a row Wednesday, as the government ordered them to go back to work by Thursday. Unless they return to work, they will face suspension of licenses and even indictment. At the center of the dispute is the government's plan to boost the medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 next year, from the current 3,058. On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol said the plan is a "minimum necessary measure" to address a shortage of doctors and stressed that, "This cannot and should not be a subject for negotiation or compromise." In another sign of the government's hard-line stance against the walkout, the health ministry filed a complaint with the police against five doctors affiliated with the Korea Medical Association (KMA), a majo r lobby group of senior doctors, seeking a probe on charges of violation of the medical law and obstruction of justice. Also on Wednesday, health ministry officials started visiting the homes of trainee doctors to deliver the government's back-to-work order, in a final step that would allow the government to file a criminal complaint over the labor action. In previous labor actions, trainee doctors had refused to receive the order by turning off their phones when the government sent such an order via text messages. A ministry official said delivering the order in person is aimed at ensuring "the effectiveness of delivery" in a potential legal dispute with trainee doctors. The government has called for trainee doctors to resume work by Thursday, assuring those who comply will not be held responsible for their prior actions, while warning of zero-tolerance consequences for people who fail to comply. Officials said that 8,939 trainee doctors, or 72.7 percent of the total, have walked off their jobs as of Mo nday night. The number of trainee doctors who submitted their resignations came to 9,909. As the mass walkout continued, the number of surgeries performed at major hospitals reportedly halved. In response to the shortage of medical staff, the government has permitted nurses to undertake certain doctor roles in a limited capacity since the previous day. "In the absence of trainee doctors, hospitals are pushing other workers, including nurses, to perform duties meant for doctors, posing a potential risk of accidents," an official from the labor union at Seoul National University Hospital said. South Korea has been pushing to increase the number of medical freshmen to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine. Doctors, however, argue that the government should rather focus on protecting them from malpractice suits and improving compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such un popular areas. Source: Yonhap News Agency