Ebrahim Patel. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Ebrahim Patel. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

There is no fixed time-frame for the country to move from the current level 4 of the government’s lockdown strategy to level 3 as this would depend on the level of infections and the readiness of the health sector to cope with the coronavirus cases, trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel said on Friday.

SA moved from the strictest level of lockdown, level 5, to level 4 as from Friday, allowing designated sectors of the economy to start operating.

Patel told a joint virtual meeting of parliament’s two trade and industry committees that level 4 could see as many as 2-million workers returning to work in phases and batches.

“It’s not that the economy needs to be in level 4 for a four-week period or a six-week period. If we see that we get all of the results showing that we can move rapidly to level 3 on a risk-based approach, then we can do so.

“If we can avoid a sharp increase in the level of infection with the return to work of a large number of workers and if we can expand testing and health-care facilities in this period, the economy could shift to level 3 as soon as possible,” the minister said.

Patel said decisions on risk levels were made on the advice of the minister of health. “He must make the difficult judgment calls on the risk levels,” said Patel.

In terms of government’s risk-adjusted approach to containing the spread of Covid-19, there are five levels of restrictions based on the health risk and the level of infections. Eventually this approach will differentiate between provinces and districts in terms of their level of infections and the lockdown level they have to comply with. The lower level of risk and the greater the level of health readiness, the greater the openness of the economy.

Replying to a comment by DA spokesperson on trade and industry Dean Macpherson, Patel stressed it was not the government’s job to choose winners or losers in the economy but that a system of a phased return to work was necessary.

“I am absolutely committed to doing everything in my power to facilitate and enable as many firms as possible to get in as quickly as possible,” Patel said.

The level 4 regulations specify what sectors and sub sectors of the economy can begin operating and at what level of employment. All manufacturing operations are permitted, though some are restricted to operating at 30% of employment, increasing to 50% for certain sectors and 100% for others.

The focus of level 4 is to make workplaces Covid-19 ready to reduce the risk of infection to employees and customers and increase the rate of testing. Employees will have to be screened, hand sanitisers and face masks provided, premises sanitised and arrangements made for shifts and canteen control.

Patel stressed the importance of mass testing during level 4, saying this was critical for dealing with the virus and for establishing the level of infection in society. “The more people we test, the greater our confidence levels in whatever we do.”

Patel has been criticised for the restrictions placed on e-commerce. He told MPs that under level 4, an increasing quantity of goods can be sold through e-commerce, including products sold by retailers and hot cooked foods that can be delivered.

He said the regulations on e-commerce could not be completed in the available time and consultations were taking place. The regulations allowed for an incremental expansion of e-commerce, taking into account the need to limit movement on the road, contact between people, law enforcement challenges and the effect on other businesses “so that we can get as much goods flowing in the economy”.

“This is an area which we will be looking at very quickly to see what more can be done,” Patel said.

A balancing act was required so as not to open the economy too rapidly and see a sharp rise in infections, but at the same time not to restrict economic activity too much. A step-by-step approach to opening the economy was required. There were still high and growing levels of infection.

ensorl@businesslive.co.za