Firmer lockdown restrictions, including tougher enforcement of mask-wearing in public and social distancing, further limits on gatherings and an earlier curfew, are set to be announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa this week as part of a move to level 2 lockdown.
The national coronavirus command council met on Tuesday to discuss introducing further restrictions to help curb the impact of the third wave.
The meeting was held following a steady rise in Covid-19 infections, deaths and hospitalisations. However, an outright alcohol ban is unlikely this time.
TOUGH ENFORCEMENT ON THE CARDS
City Press has been reliably told that “scientists on South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee suggested further restrictions, particularly a curb on indoor and mass gatherings, which have been identified as superspreader events that South Africa should guard against”.
“So far, the understanding is that indoor gatherings will be reduced from the current 250 to 100 people, while outdoor events will remain at 500 people,” said a member of the coronavirus command council.
The major call made by both the ministerial advisory committee scientists and provincial command councils was for “tougher monitoring and enforcement of current non-pharmaceutical interventions such as wearing masks, social distancing and sanitising”.
“There was unanimous agreement that the majority of citizens have reached a point of fatigue where they now only adhere to these non-pharmaceutical interventions when they go into spaces like malls or other venues.
“Such behaviour should be monitored, hence the call that was fiercely advocated by the Gauteng provincial command council and the ministerial advisory committee scientists.
“The envisioned plan is for police visibility to again increase and have law enforcement seriously enforce these regulations,” said another coronavirus command council member.
City Press also understands that places like Sunnyside in Pretoria, Rondebosch in Cape Town, and Braamfontein and Doornfontein in Johannesburg, which have high concentrations of tertiary students, will “definitely see an increase in law enforcement patrols”.
“Townships have also been earmarked as places where law enforcement officials will be stationed,” said a minister who sits on the coronavirus command council.
Another restriction that is definitely on the cards is an earlier curfew.
“Suggestions were that the curfew be moved from the current midnight to 4am to an earlier 10pm to 6am. However, the exact times haven’t been finalised, given that business and labour are also expected to add their input before a final verdict is passed,” said a source close to the ministerial advisory committee scientists.
“While there were engagements on whether schools should be placed on pause, sanity prevailed [and it was agreed that] the announcement made in May by the council of education ministers to suspend all contact sports would suffice for now, as this was the major contributing factor to the increase in Covid-19 cases in Gauteng schools, in particular.
“There were also discussions about pupils in grades R to 7, who’re expected to return to school daily from July 26. The plan for that is to play it by ear and see whether the new restrictions lead to a reduction in infection rates. If not, then there might be another consultation with the ministerial advisory committee.”
On Friday, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga gazetted that pupils in those grades would return to school on that date.
LIQUOR INDUSTRY APPEALS TO RAMAPHOSA
South Africa reported a steep increase in Covid-19-related hospitalisations this past Tuesday, another sign that the country is at the beginning of a third wave of infections.
Data published by the department of health showed that there had been a drastic 17% increase in hospitalisations this week, compared with the previous seven days.
The greatest increase of 21% was recorded in Gauteng.
Professor Glenda Gray, president and CEO of the SA Medical Research Council, warned that health practitioners were being forced “to open up other wards to accommodate new patients”.
“Hospitals are starting to come under pressure in Gauteng,” said Gray.
The province also saw a 53% increase in Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks, according to data released by the department of health on Tuesday evening.
Hospitalisations due to Covid-19 increased by 16% in the Eastern Cape, while the Free State and the Northern Cape both recorded a 10% increase.
Although an increase in hospitalisations has previously been a precursor to further restrictions, especially regarding the sale of alcohol, government is not yet expected to introduce an outright ban on liquor.
“What has been proposed is that should hospitalisations continue to surge, then we’ll see a return to the Monday-to-Thursday sales of alcohol, as weekend consumption is seen as the biggest contributor to reckless behaviour,” said the minister, who also sits on the national coronavirus command council.
In a letter to the president, which City Press has seen, National Liquor Traders Council convenor Lucky Ntimane has requested that the national coronavirus command council consult with his sector before any decisions are made that will affect their businesses.
“Our purpose is to find sustainable solutions and support government efforts to combat the pandemic in every way possible … In our view, and as we have always maintained, the rise in Covid-19 infections is a much bigger societal challenge that requires all of us as – business, civil society and government – to work together to find solutions,” wrote Ntimane.
Ntimane added that “where restrictions in economic activity are required, these should be clearly explained with clear end dates”.
The surge in infections has strongly gripped the Free State, the Northern Cape, Gauteng and North West, with a steady increase in infections also sweeping through the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
This week, South Africa recorded daily increases in infections of more than 3 000 and on Friday alone, the country recorded 4 576 new cases and 123 more deaths.
Professor Adrian Puren, the acting executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, recently stated that South Africa had not yet met the criteria for a new wave.
Puren said that while the recent rapid increases in the percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 and the seven-day moving average of confirmed cases across all provinces were causes for concern, the situation could not yet be categorised as a third wave of infections.
He explained that according to an ministerial advisory committee technical working group, a resurgence could be classified as a new wave “when the seven-day moving average incidence exceeds 30% of the previous wave’s peak”.
The national seven-day moving average peaked at 18 800 cases during the last wave (on January 11), so the current increase in infections could only be deemed to be a new wave if the seven-day moving average incidence increased to about 5 600 cases per day, said Puren. This is currently not the case.
PROVINCES MUST GET READY
Dr Ridhwaan Suliman, senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said the last time there had been such a steep increase was in early February, before the country exited its second wave.
He said that the seven-day rolling average test positivity rate in South Africa had now breached the 10% level, meaning that of all the tests being conducted, 10% were positive. Across all nine provinces, there had been an increase of 11% in new test positivity rates.
The World Health Organisation considers a test positivity rate of more than 10% to be indicative of a surge of new infections that could lead to a new wave, and recommends that governments tighten restrictions.
The Northern Cape has seen the biggest “new case incidence” uptake in the past seven days, while Limpopo has seen the biggest case percentage change, compared with this time last week.
According to the department of health, the highest case incidence per 100 000 population over the past week was reported in the Northern Cape at 226.9, while the Free State has the second highest at 101.2.
Gauteng stands at 58.4 and North West at 52.7, while Mpumalanga and the Western Cape are at 24.4 and 22.8, respectively – arguably another indicator that South Africa is now on its way to a third wave.
The country is currently in phase two of the national vaccine roll-out and just over 700 000 doses have been administered, but only 480 000 people have been fully vaccinated. This amounts to just 0.8% of the country’s population.