President Cyril Ramaphosa is preparing to ease lockdown restrictions, including the possible scrapping of an alcohol sales ban, according to people familiar with the matter.
The country could move to lockdown level 2 this week if cabinet accepts a recommendation from directors-general to open more sectors of the economy.
A forum made up of directors-general of national departments (Fosad)‚ met on Sunday and resolved to recommend to the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) that almost all sectors of the economy, except crowded places‚ be opened, but under strict enforcement of social distancing‚ hand sanitisation and wearing of masks.
If their recommendation is accepted by the NCCC and endorsed by cabinet‚ President Cyril Ramaphosa could address the nation before the end of the week to communicate the move to level 2.
TimesLIVE understands from two people who attended the meeting on Sunday that the dominant view among the directors-general was that the economy had taken a battering and that more sectors should be opened to fire it up again.
“The conversation was that if we don’t open more sectors of the economy‚ there’s going to be more damage‚” said a director-general, who asked not to be named.
Another attendee said there were robust discussions about the lockdown and the safest ways to open more sectors. He said work streams of the directors-general forum had interacted with the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints)‚ which co-ordinates all security and law enforcement operations in the country‚ to advise on how best the country could open up more, given that infection rates were steadying‚ and the virus was being contained. NatJoints includes the police‚ the army‚ intelligence services and the health department.
The NCCC met on Tuesday to discuss recommendations from the directors-general and other structures on the way forward. Its decisions have to be endorsed by cabinet.
Contacted on Wednesday‚ cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams refused to comment‚ saying discussions in the NCCC and cabinet were confidential. “If it’s not been cleared‚ I can’t talk about it‚” she said.
The country will move to so-called alert level 2, although details of which curbs will be retained are still being worked out, said four of the people, asking not to be identified because the information hasn’t been made public.
Two said a decision had been taken to allow alcohol to be sold, two said the tobacco-sales ban would be scrapped and one said travel restrictions would be relaxed.
“The measures that we have put in place have been working, and we are seeing a tapering off of the number of infections,” said Lungi Mtshali, a spokesperson for the Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Ministry, which administers the lockdown rules.
“The numbers are going down, and regular assessments will be done to open up the economy when ready.”
Tyrone Seale, Ramaphosa’s acting spokesperson, said he could not immediately comment.
Most businesses were closed for five weeks from late March, when the government imposed one of the world’s most severe lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Infections skyrocketed after the restrictions were progressively eased to allow most people to return to work and the country has now had 566,109 confirmed cases, the fifth-most in the world.
SA, which has so far recorded 566,000 infections and 10,000 deaths‚ has enforced one of the strictest lockdowns in its battle against Covid-19. This includes prohibiting the sale of alcohol and tobacco and enforcing a night-time curfew.
The tobacco industry has gone to court to try to overturn the ban on sales‚ while the alcohol industry has implored the government to allow it to resume sales under certain conditions‚ including limited trading hours and rationing the amount of liquor that individuals can purchase.
Top players such as SAB and Heineken announced that they were putting on ice investments worth billions of rand as a result of not being allowed to trade. The hospitality industry is also pleading to be allowed to operate in full to save thousands of businesses and jobs.
Remaining on alert level 3 restrictions include bans on inter-provincial travel, alcohol and tobacco sales, family visits and social gatherings.
The government may decide to limit the amount of alcohol and tobacco individuals can buy, one of the people said.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a radio interview on Wednesday that the lockdown rules should be eased because there have been declines in cases in the four most-populous provinces – Gauteng, Western Cape, KZN and the Eastern Cape.
In addition, doctors are now expecting fatalities to be lower than previously feared.
The lockdown has had a devastating effect on Africa’s most industrialized economy, with both the central bank and National Treasury anticipating it will contract more than 7% this year.
A study by a group of 30 academics and researchers estimated that 3 million people lost their jobs between February and April, while 1.5 million others were furloughed.
Many wine businesses have already closed down and an extension of the alcohol sales ban would wipe out those that are still operating, casting tens of thousands of people out of work, according to Vinpro, an industry body.
“Our producers are already preparing for the 2021 wine harvest,” Rico Basson, the group’s managing director, said in an emailed statement.
“However, with close to 300 million liters (79,251 gallons) of surplus wine still in cellar tanks, we might not have space for the new crop. The situation is dire.”