North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has denounced his country's response to the coronavirus pandemic and ordered the army to help distribute medicine.

State media said 50 people had died since it first reported an outbreak of Covid-19 last week, and that more than one million have been sickened by what Pyongyang is referring to as "fever".

Mr Kim has ordered nationwide lockdowns to try to slow the spread of disease through the unvaccinated population.

In a sign of how serious the situation may be, he "strongly criticised" healthcare officials for what he called a botched response to epidemic prevention, specifically a failure to keep pharmacies open 'round-the-clock to distribute medicine.

Mr Kim ordered the army to get to work "on immediately stabilising the supply of medicines in Pyongyang", the capital, where Omicron was detected last week.

The country's leader has put himself front and centre of North Korea's disease response, overseeing near-daily emergency Politburo meetings on the outbreak, which he has said is causing "great upheaval."

KCNA quoted Mr Kim as saying the failure to distribute medicine properly was "because officials of the Cabinet and public health sector in charge of the supply have not rolled up their sleeves, not properly recognising the present crisis."

Mr Kim, who visited pharmacies to inspect first hand, "strongly criticised the Cabinet and public health sector for their irresponsible work attitude," KCNA said.

He also criticised lapses in official legal oversight, flagging "several negative phenomena in the nationwide handling and sale of medicines."

Experts say North Korea has one of the world's worst healthcare systems, with poorly-equipped hospitals, few intensive care units, and no Covid treatment drugs or mass testing ability.

Cheong Seong-jang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute told the AFP news agency: "While visiting a pharmacy, Kim Jong-un saw with his eyes the shortage of medicines in North Korea.

"He may have guessed but the situation may have been more serious than he had expected."

KCNA said that as of 15 May a total of 50 people had died, with 1,213,550 cases of "fever" and over half a million currently receiving medical treatment.

North Korea had maintained a rigid coronavirus blockade since the pandemic began, but with massive Omicron outbreaks in neighbouring countries, experts said it was inevitable Covid would sneak in.

It has previously turned down offers of Covid vaccines from China and the World Health Organisation's Covax scheme, but both Beijing and South Korea have issued fresh offers of aid since the outbreak was announced.