Minister Ebrahim Patel Minister. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Minister Ebrahim Patel Minister. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

The government is placing greater responsibility on businesses to control the spread of the coronavirus as it embarks on a delicate balancing act to protect lives while allowing more economic activity, says  trade and industry minister Ebrahim Patel.

“We have moved from just regulations, but we are collaborating more with business as we open up the economy,” Patel said during a media briefing on Thursday to outline some of the level 3 regulations.

“We are building a system. It will not be perfect. The value of phased opening is we can learn as we go along. This risk-adjusted approach is placing greater responsibility on workplaces and businesses in helping to make the working environment a safe one,” the minister said.  

He said level 3, which comes into effect on June 1, would result in close to 8-million workers returning to work as government moved to mitigate the economic fallout of the pandemic. Those returning to work would be required to have a letter from the employer and not a government permit as was the case under level 4 and 5.  

The move to level 3 meant most businesses would be operating at varying degrees, but various other sectors seen as high risk, including gyms and personal-care services such as hairdressers, would remain shut.  Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu suggested that such sectors were likely to open once there was agreement on how to they could operate while limiting the spread of the virus.

The pandemic has caused pandemonium with a global economic depression all but certain.

In SA, the lockdown, which came into force at the end of March, is set to lead to a jobs bloodbath and has put government's finances under severe strain, with economists predicting that its budget deficit for 2020 could be double the 6.8% tabled in the February budget.

Patel and co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma were sharply criticised in recent weeks for gazetting regulations perceived by some as unnecessarily stringent and at times irrational, causing serious damage to business.  This included the ban on e-commerce that was later lifted.

Patel said the lockdown had bought government valuable time to build up capacity in the health-care system, and now the focus was on kick-starting economic activity while limiting the spread of the virus. The role of business would be crucial, he said.

Businesses that would be operating needed to put in place strict health protocols, and people who could work from home were encouraged to continue doing so, the minister said.

 “We cannot stop spread; our approach is to limit the rate of spread so as not to overwhelm the health-care system.”

The relaxed regulations mean that hot prepared food will be sold, and customers will be allowed to order and go to restaurants to collect food to eat at home. Drive-through services will also be allowed. Liquor stores will be able to operate from Monday to Thursday from 9am to 5pm.

Patel said that to limit the initial rush — as experienced in other countries when liquor outlets were opened after lockdown — restaurants, taverns, and shebeens would be allowed to trade for off-premise consumption only.

“This should reduce the number of persons who come to one place. They [liquor traders] have also indicated that they will take firm steps to reduce that rush, so that we do not have that rush we saw when liquor stores opened elsewhere in the world,” Patel said.  

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