Trade and industry minister, Ebrahim Patel. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS / BLOOMBERG
Trade and industry minister, Ebrahim Patel. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS / BLOOMBERG

The government has moved to give the health sector greater flexibility in dealing with SA’s Covid-19 epidemic, exempting it from aspects of the Competition Act that prohibit collective bargaining and sharing resources.  

SA’s outbreak has grown rapidly since the first case was announced on March 5, with a total of 150 cases by Thursday. Most of the cases are among travellers who have visited hard-hit countries, but local transmission cases are mounting, and now stand at 16.

On Thursday trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel published a block exemption for the health care sector to sections 4 and 5 of the Competition Act in the Government Gazette, solely for tackling Covid-19.

It opens the way for private hospitals to collaborate with each other and with the state, to make the best use of hospital beds, intensive care units, and isolation facilities. The exemption also removes an impediment to co-ordinating the procurement of pharmaceuticals and consumables, transferring equipment and supplies, and co-ordinating the use of staff.

“It will allow private health care providers to co-ordinate their actions as part of the national department of health's efforts and this will include sharing of beds, sharing of facilities, medical supplies, nurses, doctors and so on,” he said.

Patel said the government had been in discussion with the private sector and organised labour to get broad support for government’s actions and to mobilise resources to complement and strengthen its efforts to fight the virus. The exemption is in line with a raft of measures introduced by the government in the wake of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration of a national emergency on March 15.

The exemption applies to healthcare facilities, pharmacies, medical suppliers, medical specialist and radiologists, pathologists and laboratories, and healthcare funders.

Healthcare consultant Elsabe Klick said the government needed to go a step further, as the Medicines and Related Substances Act prohibited the donation or resale of medicines. As things stand, a private hospital would still not be able to sell or donate medicines to another facility, she said.

In a separate development, SA’s medicines regulator has instructed pharmaceutical manufacturers and suppliers to inform it of any anticipated disruptions in supply, shortages or planned withdrawals of products from the SA market.

“The information requested is to be reported as soon as it comes to the attention of manufacturers or suppliers,” the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority said in a notice issued to the industry on March 17 in terms of section 19 (2) of the Medicines Act.

Patel said government has been working with retailers and large food producers to ensure that the supply chain remained strong and that basic goods were available. Factories had reported that production was stable, farmers had promised  a “bumper” maize crop, consumer stockpiling appeared to have tapered off, and retailers had agreed to put limits on basic products, he said.

Nevertheless, the government had gazetted regulations under both the Competition Act and the Consumer Protection act to prohibit unjustified price hikes and the stock-piling of goods. The regulations also give the government the power to ration goods, should the need arise.

“The effect of Covid-19 on the economy is being closely watched. It will have an effect on GDP but our key concern is to save lives and ensure that we minimise economic cost. After we have defeated the virus we will all have to work together to rebuild the economy,” Patel said.  

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