President Cyril Ramaphosa last night swept aside most of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in a bold move intended to restart an economy shattered by nearly five months of lockdown.
Level 2 takes effect from midnight tomorrow, when restrictions on booze, cigarettes, inter-provincial travel and personal and family visits will largely fall away. Bans will remain on spectators at live sport, and on international travel.
However, bars, taverns and restaurants will be able to serve alcohol to sitting patrons until 10pm.
The president’s announcement comes after a week of intense consultations, highlighted by pleas and warnings from the business sector that SA’s economy is on its knees and that urgent action is needed.
The new regulations will be especially well received by the tourism sector, which has been warning of a jobs bloodbath of up to 600,000 posts unless interprovincial travel is permitted again.
The decision comes as the daily Covid-19 infection rate average has fallen dramatically and now stands at just below 5,000 a day.
All indications are that South Africa has reached the peak
Ramaphosa said this improvement, and lower-than-expected hospitalisation rates, influenced the cabinet’s decision to move to level 2.
“As we look back at the past five months, all indications are that SA has reached the peak and moved beyond the inflection point of the curve. Most of our health facilities have proven resilient, capable and able to withstand and deal with the surge.
“The modelled projections of infections, hospitalisation and deaths have had to be adjusted downwards as we have recorded better progress in the management of the disease.”
Ramaphosa said the decision was based on advice from health experts.
“We have concluded that the lower rate of infections we are experiencing should lead to the relaxation of the restrictions we have had thus far,” he said.
As of last night, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 583,653.
Ramaphosa revealed that the number of hospitalised patients had gone down from 10,000 to about 4,000.
“This is significantly reducing the pressure on our health facilities,” he said.
The number of Covid-related deaths reached 11,667 yesterday, but the recovery rate had risen to ‘‘an incredible 80%’’, from 48% when Ramaphosa last addressed the nation.
The lifting of the ban on cigarettes and booze salles will provide a much-needed boost to the fiscus, which has been hammered even as a flourishing black market has gained a foothold, turning millions of otherwise law-abiding South Africans into criminal suspects overnight.
Smokers will finally have access to popular brands of cigarettes at their normal price at their nearest outlets.
Bars will open their doors for the first time in almost five months under strict regulations. Liquor stores will be allowed to sell alcohol between Monday and Thursday.
However, other restrictions — including a 50-person limit on gatherings, a curfew in force between 10pm and 4am and wearing of face masks in public — remain in place. The cabinet also advised citizens over the age of 60 to continue to stay indoors. Although family visits will be allowed, the cabinet advised they happen only when necessary.
The cabinet reached the decision yesterday after receiving advice from health experts, and after consultations with other government spheres, business, labour, the community sector and traditional leaders.
The move to level 2 was first mooted at a meeting on the National Coronavirus Command Council held on Tuesday, where directors-general sounded a warning about the economy to Ramaphosa and his ministers.
“The advice given was that as the country is doing well to manage the crisis, but the economy is taking a battering. That we need to open up more sectors of the economy, including allowing alcohol and tobacco sales to resume. We said the economy must open up more,” said a source who attended the meeting.
This was followed by a meeting of the Presidential Economic Advisory Council on economic recovery on Wednesday. On Thursday, the president received advice from the National Economic Development and Labour Council, where a draft economic recovery plan was presented. In that meeting both business and labour urged Ramaphosa to lift restrictions that hampered economic activity.
Martin Kingston of Business for SA said it was in that meeting that Ramaphosa expressed his commitment to relaxing the regulations.
“As business we were clear in what we think there needs to be an accelerated transition into level 2 and beyond. We said the sectors of the economy that have been prevented from full participation, hospitality and alcohol, need to be enabled to participate as a matter of urgency because jobs and businesses are on the line, they are very vulnerable.
“The president was extremely sensitive to this issue and his commitment was that they would move to level 2 as quickly as they practically can, but they are still taking advice,” said Kingston.
Yesterday, the president first met the Presidential Co-ordinating Council, made up of premiers and mayors, where he told them of his intention to open all economic activity. This was followed by a special cabinet meeting yesterday afternoon, where the final details of the reopening were thrashed out.
Ramaphosa also announced that the government would soon unveil a new app that would assist in contact tracing.
“In addition to manual contact tracing and the national WhatsApp channel, a mobile application will be used to notify contacts more quickly while preserving their privacy and anonymity,” said Ramaphosa.
He paid tribute to health-care practitioners who have been at the forefront of fighting the virus. He also thanked traditional and religious leaders who provided “guidance on how religious and cultural observances can be adjusted during the time of coronavirus”.