Cape Town - More than two years after the first Covid-19 case and 750 days of a National State of Disaster, five waves, over 100 000 deaths, a stay-at-home order, closure of businesses, increased job losses and immense strain on the health sector, South Africans have embraced the repeal of all Covid-19 restrictions with a sense of optimism and relief.
Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele, with Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, held a media briefing on Thursday, following Phaahla’s decision to repeal Covid-19 restrictions related to mask wearing, public gatherings and travel, including vaccination proof at ports of entry.
The Cabinet approved the repeal on Wednesday, with unanimous approval by the President’s Co-ordinating Council consisting of premiers and mayors.
As at mid-June, there was a decline in reported cases, hospitalisations, effective reproductive rate of the virus (0.7%), decline in test positivity rate, and reported deaths.
In terms of “No mask, no entry” at certain establishments and buildings, Phaahla said any facility had the right to make its own regulations.
The vaccination programme would remain and is now being integrated into primary health-care services.
With an already substantial amount of vaccine stock and a slow uptake, Phaahla said about R1.4 billion had been saved after the agreement with the Covax facility on a supply of a sizeable consignment of vaccines, mainly Pfizer, had been waived.
Eight million Pfizer doses could be discarded should the slow uptake continue.
Discussions with Johnson & Johnson to waiver similar commitments were taking place.
Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said the City would immediately drop all remaining Covid-19 restrictions at its facilities.
“This includes capacity limitations at facilities, the compulsory wearing of face masks, and compulsory hand sanitising at the entrances to facilities.”
On what would now be done with the province’s personal protective equipment stockpile, Health and Wellness Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever said PPE was procured for use by staff in highly infectious spaces.
“These will continue to be used as infection prevention and control within a health facility is ongoing, just as it was even before Covid-19.”
DA Western Cape spokesperson on health Wendy Kaizer-Philander said this year alone, R198 million was allocated towards the province’s vaccination programme with R777 million towards the province’s Covid-19 response.
Western Cape Education Department (WCED) spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said schools were informed on Thursday morning about the repeal and that it would apply to all public schools.
“Learners, educators and school-based public servants are therefore not required to wear face masks at schools. However, should a learner, educator or staff member wish to continue to wear a face mask for health reasons, they may continue to do so.”
Cape Chamber of Commerce & Industry president, Jacques Moolman said the lifting of all Covid-19 restrictions would have an immediate positive impact on economic recovery, and many scheduled events could now take place at full capacity.
“The news will be especially pleasing to the events industry, and to many other sectors which have been negatively impacted by restrictions, such as the hospitality trade.”
Moolman appealed to the government to assist small businesses who did not survive during the two-year pandemic to not only recover but grow their footprint.
Artscape CEO Marlene le Roux expressed joy and elation at the announcement.
“We are particularly thankful that we can now pursue a return to normal with even more invigorated theatre productions, which does justice to the world-class talent that we have as a nation.”
V&A Waterfront CEO David Green welcomed the announcement but said they would not be immediately removing temporary hand sanitising stations at entrances and bathrooms and would also maintain hand and sanitising facilities.
Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa managing director Euan McNeil said they expect a considerable uptick in travel bookings.
“These restrictions have been causing some confusion for travellers, who are unsure how to present their proof of vaccination. For those who aren’t vaccinated, the cost of PCR tests has also been a major deterrent.”
While one disease is in decline, another is rearing its ugly head. Phaahla and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed the first case of monkeypox in South Africa.
“The patient is a 30-year-old male from Johannesburg who has no travel history, meaning that it cannot be attributed to the disease having been acquired elsewhere,” Phaahla said.
“It's not spread by simply being in the environment, there has to be actual contact with the person who is infected.
“All precautions in terms of contact tracing, isolation of the people who have been confirmed to be positive will be happening, but I can assure South Africans that this is not a novel virus which has never been seen before. Its characteristics are well known,” Phaahla said.