Cape Town - A tsunami of Covid-19 infections across South Africa has caused the government to close the country’s beaches, ban the sale of alcohol and ban mass gatherings, except for funerals, until January 15 next year.
Addressing the nation last night, President Cyril Ramaphosa, at times close to tears, implored South Africans to heed coronavirus safety protocols.
His call came as South Africa exceeded more than a million Covid-19 infections, with reports from across the country that hospitals had run out of bed space.
Ramaphosa confirmed that more than 27 000 people in the country had died of Covid-19.
“The number of new coronavirus infections is climbing at an unprecedented rate.
“More than 50 000 new cases have been reported since Christmas Eve,” Ramaphosa said.
The majority of new cases had sprung up in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape, with infections also “alarmingly” on the rise in Limpopo.
Most new cases could be attributed to social interactions when people visited friends, family, attended religious gatherings and went to parties.
Ramaphosa said the new Covid-19 variant, identified in South Africa – 501.V2 – was more contagious than the virus which drove the first wave of infections in March.
“The rapid rise in infections is being fuelled by so-called superspreader events, including like end-of-year functions, family and social gatherings, and music and cultural events,” said Ramaphosa.
He said South Africans had become less vigilant over the holiday period and were now paying the price with the increased number of infections.
He said people were not wearing masks, not washing their hands (or sanitising), failed to keep safe distances from others, and had continued to host and attend social gatherings and events which flouted public health regulations.
“As has been the case previously, social gatherings substantially increase the risk of transmission.
“Venues are often poorly ventilated and their permitted capacity is being exceeded,” said Ramaphosa.
He said excessive alcohol consumption was behind the spike in trauma cases, clogging up scarce resources at public hospitals.
“According to the data we have, with every relaxation of the restrictions on the sale of alcohol, the number of trauma cases reporting at our hospitals has increased,” said Ramaphosa.
He said for December alone, 4 630 public sector health employees contracted Covid-19, bringing to more than 41 000 the total number of health-care workers infected since the start of the pandemic.
“Unless we act now and unless we act decisively, the number of new infections will far exceed what we experienced during the first wave and thousands more people will lose their lives.
“On the recommendation of the National Coronavirus Command Council, and after consultation with provinces and metro mayors, Cabinet has decided to put the country on an adjusted Level 3 from Level 1 with immediate effect,” said Ramaphosa.
He said the government had adjusted the restrictions that will apply at level 3 based on the lessons learned during the previous lockdown.
Funerals may not be attended by more than 50 people with physical distancing.
The nationwide curfew will be extended from 9pm to 6am and will apply to all except essential workers with no one allowed outside their homes during the curfew.
Non-essential establishments – including shops, restaurants, bars and all cultural venues – must close by 8pm.
“We now know that the simplest and most effective way to reduce transmission of the coronavirus is to wear a cloth mask that covers the nose and mouth whenever in public. Until now the owners and managers of shops and public buildings, employers and operators of public transport have had a legal responsibility to ensure that everyone entering their premises or vehicle is wearing a mask.
“But given the grave danger our country now faces, the adjusted level 3 regulations will make every individual legally responsible for wearing a mask in public. From now on it is compulsory for every person to wear a mask in a public space.
“A person who does not wear a cloth mask covering over the nose and mouth in a public place will be committing an offence,” said Ramaphosa.
“On conviction, they will be liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both a fine and imprisonment.
This is a drastic measure but is now necessary to ensure compliance with the most basic of preventative measures,” said Ramaphosa.
He said under the strengthened level 3 regulations the sale of alcohol from retail outlets and the on-site consumption of alcohol would be banned.
Regulations banning the sale and consumption of alcohol could be reviewed within the next few weeks “if we see a sustained decline in infections and hospital admissions”.
He said the adjusted level 3 regulations would keep the economy open while strengthening measures to reduce transmission.
“With a few exceptions, businesses may continue to operate as long as all relevant health protocols and social distancing measures are adhered to,” Ramaphosa said.
But nightclubs and those businesses engaged in the sale of alcohol will have to cease operations until, at least, January 15, 2021.
Ramaphosa said in the Western Cape, the West Coast District Municipality, Overberg District, Winelands District, the City of Cape Town, and Central Karoo District Municipality were now Covid-19 hotspots, in addition to the Garden Route District.
“As the infections continue to rise Cabinet on the advice of the National Coronavirus Command Council has decided that all beaches, dams, lakes, rivers, public parks and public swimming pools in hotspot areas will be closed to the public with effect from tomorrow,” said Ramaphosa.
But national and provincial parks and other parks where access control measures and entry limitations are already in place may remain open to the public.
Ramaphosa said those living in hot spots were strongly encouraged to minimise their travel within the district to essential travel, to minimise contact with other people.
He said government had been advised that the first shipment of the Covid-19 vaccine would arrive on South African shores by the second quarter of 2021.