Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

Labour federation Cosatu has upped the ante in its demands for the ramping up of the government's Covid-19 vaccination rollout, which it says is proceeding too slowly.

The federation described the slow vaccination rollout as being akin to “building an aeroplane while in mid-flight” during an engagement that health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize held with stakeholders, including labour unions, on the government’s vaccination rollout programme, on Friday.

The national vaccination drive will be the biggest in SA’s history, and aims to inoculate 40-million adults to reach herd immunity. However, it has yet to get fully under way as commercial stocks secured from vaccine manufacturers have yet to be delivered.

The coronavirus has infected more than 1.5-million people in the country and killed more than 53,000. More than 283,000 healthcare workers have received the Covid-19 vaccine to date.

During the virtual briefing Mkhize told the union leaders that in the past three weeks there had been “a bit of a lull” regarding information on the vaccination programme as they were still in negotiations with vaccine manufacturing companies. “Everything was fluid,” he said adding that it had taken a while to secure all the vaccines from the manufacturers.

SA had secured a combined 51-million doses from pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to inoculate 41-million people, said Mkhize.

The Covid-19 vaccine will be rolled out in three phases, with the current phase 1 being implemented from February to May and targeting about 1.2-million healthcare workers across the country.

Phase 2 would be implemented over six months, starting from May to October and is targeted at more than 16.6-million people including those aged over 60, vulnerable groups and essential workers in the mining, hospitality, media and taxi sectors, among other industries.

Phase 3 will be implemented from November to February 2022 to cover about 22.6-million people, including those who were not vaccinated during phase 2.

Mkhize said the number of vaccination sites had been revised, although the issue was still under consideration between provinces and the national health department.

Cosatu parliamentary co-ordinator Matthew Parks told Mkhize that SA could not afford to fail in its rollout plan, and stressed that labour was concerned that “we have fallen far behind other countries”.

“We are quite frustrated as labour [because] we have not moved with the speed we were supposed to move with. Our members in essential services have been heavily infected and the economic impact is massive,” said Parks.

“We can’t afford to be caught napping; the longer we take to rollout the programme, the more it’s going to hit tourism. Tourism is a large employer.”

Parks characterised the slow pace in rolling out the vaccination plan as “building an aeroplane while in mid-flight”. “These are uncharted territories. We need to ramp up the rollout.”

The Cosatu special central executive committee meeting held in Johannesburg this week noted that the labour federation was “deeply alarmed by the extremely slow pace [at which] the government has rolled out vaccines”.

It said the government needed to produce an “actual vaccine programme with real time frames, the necessary logistics and a target date of December 2021 for reaching the 67% population immunity rate”.

Pat Mphela, president of the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), suggested that unemployed doctors could be used, especially in rural areas, to ramp up the vaccination drive, while the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union official Zimisele Nanto called for more focus to be put on provinces where there had been complaints from colleagues regarding the vaccination drive.

Dr Cedric Sihlangu from the SA Medical Association Trade Union (Samatu) wanted to know whether the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson doses had adequate protection against future variants of Covid-19 and whether they will be efficacious against a third wave of the global pandemic.

“We don’t have that assurance but the two vaccines that we will be using provide protection against the dominant variant predominant in SA,” said Dr Lesley Bamford, chief director in the national health department.

Mkhize said: “We have been looking at the issue of the third wave. We believe it’s all going to be related to social behavioural change such as the use of masks, sanitising, and adhering to social distancing.”

He appealed to South Africans for “patience and support” during the vaccine rollout programme, stressing that healthcare workers would be prioritised.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za 

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