Health minister Zweli Mkhiz. Picture: WERNER HILLS
Health minister Zweli Mkhiz. Picture: WERNER HILLS

Health minister Zweli Mkhize cast uncertainty over the government’s plans for easing the lockdown on June 1 in tabling a presentation to parliament that indicates Covid-19 hotspots could remain on level 4 as the rest of the country moves to level 3.

The government defines Hotspots as high-risk regions with more than five cases of Covid-19 per 100 000 population. They include some of the biggest economic hubs, such as the metros of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

No mention of this was made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his address to the nation on Sunday night, when he said the whole country would move to level 3 on June 1.   

The minister’s spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi, initially told Business Day: “The whole country is moving to Level 3, but there can still be a determination made on June 1 to keep certain districts at Level 4.” Manzi backtracked later, saying this was an error and the minister would clarify the matter later. He had not yet done so at the time of publication.

The spectre of a regionally differentiated approach to lockdown restrictions raises questions for business and provinces about how such measures could be implemented, as the level 4 regulations impose stringent restrictions on transport and trade, confine most people to their homes and prohibit the sale of liquor and tobacco.

Draft level 3 regulations, seen by Business Day, allow limited sale of liquor  and the resumption of most economic activity, raising practical challenges for businesses with the movement of goods and employees between regions with different alert levels.

Mkhize’s presentation, which was circulated after he tabled it in parliament, says there will be implementation of “intensive measures” in hotspots “to reduce the risk of repeated closures of institutions as outbreaks continue to increase. These districts remain at level 4.”

He told MPs that intense health-care interventions were planned for  hotspots, but if they failed to reduce the spread of the virus then more stringent lockdowns could be considered.

“Lockdown in a cluster of wards, lockdown in a whole district ... that means the rate of infection is so high that it is important to actually contain the population within that particular area,” he said.

A presentation by co-operative governance and traditional affairs minister Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma, which preceded Mkhize’s, included a slide showing differentiated alert levels at district level. She told MPs that hotspots could have different restrictions, “not necessarily a different level for now, but maybe later if we don’t manage infection”.  

Business for SA’s Martin Kingston said it would be impractical for various regions of the country to be on different alert levels, governed by different restrictions on economic activity, transport and social interaction.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde said he would seek clarity from the president as he had indicated in his address on Sunday that the whole country would move to level 3 on June 1 with the hotspots being re-evaluated every two weeks.

“The province has not received any indication from national government that this was not the case. In any province, it would be very difficult to enforce some areas remaining on level 4 while others drop down to level 3,” he said.

The Western Cape’s economic hub of Cape Town remaining on alert level four would worsen the economic and humanitarian disaster resulting from  lockdown. “Already, we anticipate the province will see over 200,000 job losses as a result of the lockdown, and any further delays in easing the levels will result in more people losing their jobs and an even greater need for humanitarian relief.”