(Bloomberg) -- Nearly 8,000 South Korean trainee doctors have not reported for work in a protest against a government plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools, which is aimed at reversing a shortage of physicians.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said Wednesday 7,813 trainee doctors have left their work sites, a sharp increase from the 1,600 a day before when the labor action started. The ministry has ordered 6,112 of the trainee doctors to return to work and said resignation letters submitted by 8,816 of the trainee doctors have not been accepted. There are about 13,000 of the doctors nationwide who play key roles in providing emergency care and are similar to medical residents. 

The labor action appears to so far have only caused minor disruptions to the heath-care system. The Seoul National University Hospital, a major hospital group, said it was functioning normally while there have been some delays in surgeries. The Asan Medical Center said about 60%-70% of its surgeries were proceeding as planned while there were staff absences affecting the remainder.

“The claim of the basic right of doctors to take collective action cannot take precedence over the right to life, which is an essential and fundamental right of citizens,” the ministry said in a statement.

Read more: Why South Korea Doctors Stage Walk Out Over Med School Slots

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government plans to increase the number of slots at medical schools from next year by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate the doctor shortage that ranks among the worst among developed countries. It says the move would add medical professionals to more parts of the country and in more fields, which will be needed as the country is facing a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest aging populations.

Polling shows about 75% of the public supports the move that could help reduce waiting times and increase access to health care. Yoon has also seen his approval rate increase as he has taken a tough stance in the dispute, which has provided a boost as his conservative People Power Party tries to take control of parliament in April elections.

South Korean doctors rank as some of the best paid in the world and could see their earning power drop if there are more doctors to see patients. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries showed the annual average gross income of self-employed specialists was 6.8 times more than that of the average worker in South Korea as of 2021, which is widest gap among OECD member countries.

The basic reason is “they think their value would fall if the number of doctors increases,” Kim Yoon, a professor of health policy and management at Seoul National University College of Medicine, said of the labor action. He expects a challenging fight ahead as it appears difficult for both the doctors and the government to back down. 

“If this issue is not solved by the election, it could last for more than six months,” Kim said.

The doctors said the move to increase spots at medical schools would not address fundamental problems such as difficult working conditions, a lack of specialists in fields seen as lower paying and a concentration of doctors in urban areas.

The government has called on the trainee doctors to report to work and has a powerful weapon in the fight, because it could use the Medical Services Act to revoke the licenses of doctors over prolonged labor actions that threaten the health-care system. 

Yoon’s administration has opened emergency rooms at 12 military hospitals nationwide to the public in response to the labor action and implemented telemedicine plans across the country.

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