The government has overridden or only partially implemented much of the counsel it received from its scientific advisers, most notably on alcohol sales and school closures, despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s insistence that their recommendations underpin its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The health department has released more than two dozen Covid-19 advisories provided by scientists to health minister Zweli Mkhize over the past five months, revealing how the government has at key moments overridden their counsel and bowed to other interests, most notably on alcohol sales and school closures.
The government faced bitter opposition from the tourism, hospitality and liquor industries to the five-week prohibition on alcohol sales it imposed in midDecember as Covid-19 cases surged. The prohibition further damaged businesses hard-hit by previous bans and a series of other restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus and reducing hospital admissions.
The alcohol bans prompted legal action from SAB, owned by the world’s biggest brewer, AB InBev. The Beer Association estimated the bans cost the industry R36bn in revenue and shaved 1% off SA’s GDP.
Mkhize appointed a ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19 on March 23 2020.
It has provided him with dozens of advisories that have largely remained hidden from public view until long after they were submitted to him and informed his recommendations to the national coronavirus command council and cabinet.
A series of advisories was previously published on the government’s official coronavirus site, but the health department has now released 25 more, dated between December 2 and April 12.
While many of the latest advisories cover relatively uncontroversial topics such as infection control and testing for airline crews, critical advisories on schools and managing the pandemic during the festive period and Easter show how the government sometimes sharply diverged from the course recommended by scientists.
In December, the MAC agreed with the health department’s proposal that alcohol sales for off-site consumption be restricted during the December
festive period to Mondays to Thursdays between 10am and 6pm, and that wine farms and wine-tasting venues continue to operate. But the government imposed a complete ban on alcohol sales, in a huge blow to an industry that was struggling to recover from previous prohibitions.
The December 11 MAC advisory on managing Covid-19 during the festive season reveals that scientists were divided on whether or not to close beaches and other public recreational spaces.
The government took a softer stance than the MAC’s recommendations ahead of the Easter period, when it recommended tightening lockdown restrictions and moving the country from level 1 to level 2, including limiting alcohol sales for off-site consumption to weekdays. Instead, the government imposed only a four-day prohibition on alcohol sales from stores over the Easter long weekend and loosened rules on mass gatherings.
The advisories also show how the government departed from scientific advice on the reopening of schools in 2021. The MAC recommended that early childhood development centres and primary schools reopen as planned on January 27, but that the opening of high schools be delayed by two weeks. It noted that younger children were less likely to transmit the virus to each other and to staff. The government opted to keep all schools closed until February 15.
Neither the health minister’s spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi, or the former co-chair of the MAC Salim Abdool Karim, who was at the helm when key advisories on the December period and schools were penned, were available for comment.
Karim previously told Business Day that some advisories were not followed because the government had to weigh up other considerations. In an interview shortly after the minister agreed to his request to step down on March 31, he said: “If we are going to be advisers, we have to recognise there are others giving advice to the government too. We consider only health, but the government has to consider other aspects too.”
– Business day