Officials pour out confiscated alcohol in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL
Officials pour out confiscated alcohol in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL

Faced with the prospect of defending the ban on alcohol sales in court, health minister Zweli Mkhize was adamant on Tuesday that the suspension of sales has helped in the fight against Covid-19.

While he said he was “not at the point” of making recommendations to either continue or lift the ban, Mkhize said the prohibition on sales and distribution has eased the pressure on health facilities — and has saved health workers from the abuse that he said they sometimes endure from drunk patients.

“It’s most frustrating and actually disheartening when you’ve got people who are sick, then you have people who are not only [part of] the causation of their accidents but some of them are abusive and rude to health workers,” Mkhize said.

The government is facing a legal challenge from the country’s largest brewer, SA Breweries (SAB), over the ban, which it has said has led to billions in losses and joblessness.

AB InBev’s SA division cancelled a further R2.5bn investment after the government banned alcohol sales for the third time to control a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

The move brings the amount of spending called off by SAB to R5bn since the Covid-19 pandemic began to take off in the country 10 months ago.

Mkhize was speaking at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg on Tuesday. He was conducting an oversight visit after reports of Gauteng hospitals experiencing a high number of patients and, in certain instances, not coping.

He said the irresponsible consumption of alcohol tends to create avoidable accidents, which put pressure on health-care workers and facilities.

In the case of Charlotte Maxeke, and all other hospitals, the suspension of alcohol sales gives health workers a breather and allows them to give their full attention to Covid-19 cases.

“They have seen a huge reduction in the acute trauma in emergencies, stab wounds, gun shot wounds, motor vehicle accidents, and large taxi accidents, where you’ve got a number of people killed at the same time,” Mkhize said.

Earlier, the head of the emergency unit at the hospital, Prof Feroza Motara, who said she has been working for the health department for more than three decades, told the minister that for the first time in years they had no trauma cases on New Year’s Day.

“Because the surge was happening simultaneously, it enabled us to redirect resources … more doctors, more nurses. It enabled us to treat those [Covid-19] patients. It created more capacity because, over this period, our emergency units are usually overrun,” Motara said.

Mkhize said they are not saying people must never drink alcohol.

“We are saying [that] the suspension of alcohol has had the desired effect of reducing pressure on health workers, to the extent that they are now able to attend to a surge of unpredictable numbers.

“If we’re still facing the surge, we’d like to see that our focus goes to unavoidable problems such as the infection, rather than to the avoidable situations that alcohol brings.

“We’re not at the point where we’re making any recommendation, so I cannot comment on what our recommendation [about alcohol restrictions] will be … but we’re watching these infection numbers. The numbers are improving but we’re not anywhere near where we can say that things are fine. We’re not,” he said.



Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.