President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday night that government was extending the national state of disaster by another month and that the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) would also be extended.
While addressing South Africa on government’s fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus, Ramaphosa also announced that the trading hours for alcohol would be further relaxed to pre-Covid times, meaning alcohol can be purchased from liquor outlets on Saturdays and Sundays.
He also said South Africa would reopen international travel to all countries, subject to health and safety regulations and a clearance certificate.
The address comes a day after a special sitting of Cabinet that considered recommendations of the national coronavirus command council meeting on handling the pandemic.
Government declared a national state of disaster under section 27(1) and section 27(2) of the Disaster Management Act on March 15 2020 in response to the pandemic. That state of disaster has been extended monthly, with Wednesday’s extension until December 15.
The UIF last week confirmed that government and social partners at the National Economic Development and Labour Council were looking at extending the scheme after the state of disaster was extended for another month until November 15.
This news came amid concerns over the ability of the UIF to meet the growing demand for benefits, as retrenchments escalate as a result of a rapid contraction of the economy.
Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi told the national council of provinces last week that government had initially budgeted R40 billion for the Ters benefit, but with the extension of the lockdown and the continued need for income support it is projected that R60 billion will be needed.
To date, the UIF has paid out more than R49 billion in more than 11 million payments. Besides the Ters payments, the fund has also paid out R7.5 billion in 1.3 million payments in normal UIF benefits.
Warning of resurgence
Ramaphosa warned of growing “pandemic fatigue” across the country and the possibility of an infections surge. Despite this, he announced further easing of lockdown level 1.
“As South Africans, we have endured what we have hoped is the worst of the storm,” Ramaphosa said, adding that after hitting a high of 12 000 new cases a day in July, the daily cases stabilised at closer to 2 000 new cases a day.
“While Covid-19 has declined in the cases over the past two months, we must acknowledge that this pandemic has taken a great toll on the health and wellbeing of our people,” he said.
Ramaphosa said government was amending lockdown level 1 laws to “enable all parts of the economy to return to full operation”.
He reiterated that South Africans should continue to wear masks and social distance no matter how uncomfortable it is, as failing to do so could lead to a return to a higher lockdown level and more restrictions.
“I have been increasingly getting concerned and alarmed by what I have been seeing on social media and even on television, where people are holding big parties, gatherings and social events as though the virus does not exist.
“The same rules that applied in the early days of the lockdown should apply now. And now that we are in summer, it is far easier to meet outdoors or in rooms with open windows.”
Despite these concerns, Ramaphosa said government would continue to ease restrictions, including the hours when alcohol may be sold.
“Even as restrictions on the sale of alcohol are lifted further, we are mindful that excessive alcohol consumption is a hinderance in our fight against the coronavirus. It is vital that South Africans act responsibly to ensure that we do not see a spike in alcohol-related incidents,” he said.
On travel and tourism, the president said: “As restrictions on international travel are lifted, it is more important than ever for travellers to follow all safety protocols to protect their health and minimise the risk of acquiring Covid-19.”
Eastern Cape a concern
The president cautioned that the number of Covid-19 infections in the Eastern Cape had shown an alarming increase of 145% in the past fortnight.
He pointed to the reintroduction of tough lockdown restrictions in Europe and pleaded with South Africans to avoid a second wave locally by respecting health protocols and refraining from behaviour that could trigger a transmission rates surge.
“I’m asking you to do what we all know must be done,” he said.
Ramaphosa said national government would be working closely with the provincial government, municipalities and other institutions in the Eastern Cape to ensure that the surge is contained and managed.
“What we are witnessing in the Eastern Cape should be a wake-up call to all of us, that we cannot relax and we cannot be complacent. We are therefore also closely monitoring developments in areas that are experiencing higher than average rates of new infections,” he said.
Festive folly could endanger lives
Ramaphosa said he was also concerned about the upcoming festive season and activities which may lead to a surge in cases. He specifically drew attention to movement between provinces, more social gatherings and increased social drinking.
However, he added that responsible actions “can and do save lives”.
“Let us work together, like the great South African family that we are, to restore, recover and rebuild.”