The V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
The V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

SA will remain on lockdown level 1, the health department announced on Thursday, surprising the alcohol industry, which had expected sales restrictions, and bringing relief to the tourism industry, which suffered from border closures and faced interprovincial travel bans a year ago.

SA remains under a curfew from midnight to 4am.

As the Omicron Covid-19 variant spreads widely and is much more infectious than the strain that drove the third wave, there were fears the government may enact restrictions to attempt to reduce the spread.

The tourism industry has had little support from the government despite minimal demand during the 18 months of the pandemic. Many businesses that have survived, including restaurants and hotels, are one step away from closure.

The health department said that while the Covid-19 virus appears to be spreading more quickly than in previous waves, “the rates of hospitalisations and deaths remain relatively low”.

It is for this reason the national coronavirus command council, which met on Wednesday, made no changes to lockdown restrictions.

On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases reported 24,785 new Covid-19 cases with a test positivity rate of 30.9%, a measure used to show how severe the epidemic is.

This positivity rate on Thursday is almost as high as the peak of the third wave in the first week of July when it reached 32.5%.  The current seven-day average test positivity rate is 28.1%.

By contrast, in the week that started on October 31, only 1.1% of all Covid-19 tests came back positive.

But hospital numbers have not followed the skyrocketing infections. There are 7,614 Covid-19 patients in hospital, about four times less than at the height of the third wave. 

TimesLIVE reported the ratio of hospitalisations to infections in the second week of the fourth wave was 1.7% compared with 19% in the same week of the third wave.

The country’s leading hospital groups and the largest medical aid administrator, Discovery Health, have reported that Omicron is leading to milder disease in SA, with high numbers of infections but fewer fatalities.

The alcohol industry had expected to have retail sales reduced to Monday to Thursday. Alcohol bans have been used to reduce trauma-related injuries linked to alcohol abuse to free up hospital beds during previous Covid-19 waves.

Lucky Ntimane, convener of the National Liquor Traders Association, said: “We are relieved that government has finally listened to science and common sense in maintaining the status quo.”

He added: “Banning or restricting the sale of alcohol has not achieved anything besides condemning [those who] are dependent on the alcohol industry to destitution and a life of poverty. With our level of unemployment, we need to do everything possible to support our economy while continuing to fight Covid-19.”

Vinpro MD Rico Basson, representing the SA wine industry, said: “We are relieved that the government has not imposed more stringent national restrictions that would have had a serious effect on wine cellars, wine tourism destinations and the thousands of families that depend on the industry for their livelihoods, especially during the festive season.”

Vinpro, which has lost two of its court cases against the bans, said the government is now heeding the industry’s ongoing call for risk- and fact-based decision-making regarding liquor trade restrictions.

Wineries are under additional pressure because of a loss of international tourism resulting from the UK’s decision to place SA on a red list for just over two weeks in response to the Omicron variant.

“Domestic tourism in particular is an important lifeline for these businesses, and we are relieved that they can still trade at this time,” Basson said.

Rosemary Anderson, the national chair of the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa, which represents hotel groups in SA, said: “This is exceptionally good news for our tourism and hospitality industry, allowing us to maximise the festive season albeit trading in the height of a fourth wave, a challenging economic environment and the negative ramifications of the recent Omicron travel bans.”

She told Business Day the industry is “exceptionally relieved and happy”. But she said many South Africans had expected a repeat of last year’s restrictions, which included beach bans, and the uncertainty meant some people were reluctant to spend on travel.

Travel bodies and groups such as Flight Centre recently pleaded with the government to offer certainty about restrictions over the festive season and ensure citizens know there will be no interprovincial travel bans, to allay fears and allow many to spend on holiday bookings.

However, the uncertainty remains.

Health minister Joe Phaahla said on Thursday the department would continue to monitor daily Covid-19 infections, hospitalisations, and mortality and recovery rates, and make recommendations to the national coronavirus command council in the best interests of lives and livelihoods.

Update: December 17 2021
This story has been updated with additional information.

childk@businesslive.co.za

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