DURBAN - PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa said last night that the government was undertaking engagements with social partners and other stakeholders regarding introducing measures that would make vaccination a condition for access to workplaces, public events, public transport and public establishments.
He said this included discussions that had been taking place between government, labour, business and the community.
“Government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations.
“The task team will report to the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccination chaired by the deputy president, which will make recommendations to Cabinet on a fair and sustainable approach to vaccine mandates.”
He added that the introduction of such measures was a complex issue.
“If we do not address this seriously and as a matter of urgency, we will continue to be vulnerable to new variants and will continue to suffer new waves of infection.”
But Ramaphosa said the Cabinet had decided to keep the country on alert level 1, much to the relief of the hospitality industry.
“In taking the decision not to impose further restrictions at this stage, we considered the fact that when we encountered previous waves of infection, vaccines were not widely available and far fewer people were vaccinated.
“That is no longer the case. Vaccines are available to anyone aged 12 and above, free of charge, at thousands of sites across the country.”
Earlier yesterday, Restaurant Association of South Africa’s Wendy Alberts had warned that any closure of the industry would deal a huge blow for operators who were looking at the festive season as their best chance to recover.
Also, while some liquor stores saw roaring trade yesterday as many feared a ban on alcohol sales, there was also good news for the industry with no ban imposed.
Liquor Traders Association’s Lucky Ntimane said the alcohol industry should be commended for the role it had played to fight against Covid-19 and said the industry played an important role in the economy as 250 000 jobs were linked to taverns and there were more than 1 million jobs in the alcohol industry and value chain.
Speaking on the Omicron variant, Ramaphosa said early identification of this variant was as a result of the excellent work done by scientists in South Africa and was a direct result of the investment that the Science and Innovation and Health departments had made on genomic surveillance capabilities.
He said it was known that Omicron had far more mutations than any previous variant, was readily detected by current Covid-19 tests and that the variant was different from other circulating variants and not directly related to the Delta or Beta strains.
He added that the variant was responsible for most of the infections found in Gauteng over the past two weeks and was now showing up in all other provinces. He said that vaccination was a powerful tool that the country had to deal with the variant.
“Vaccination is by far the most important way to protect yourself and those around you against the Omicron variant, to reduce the impact of the fourth wave and to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for.
“Vaccination is also vital to the return of our economy to full operation, to the resumption of travel and to the recovery of vulnerable sectors like tourism and hospitality.”
Regarding the travel bans imposed on southern African nations, including South Africa, Ramaphosa said: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant.”
He said the restrictions were unjustified and unfairly discriminated against the country and other southern African sister countries.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the ban they have imposed.”
Professor Glenda Gray of the South African Medical Research Council said mandatory vaccinations were critical for the country to move ahead.
“We have to ensure we start introducing vaccine mandates wherever we go, we should also insist that when we go to restaurants or when people come to our house they are able to produce vaccine passports, so we know that we are mixing with people who are going to protect us and not going to transmit any virus to us.
“Vaccine mandates are critical to us and we have seen it work in other parts of the world and there is no reason why it wont work here.
“Kenya will be introducing a vaccine mandate as well, so we are not the only country in Africa that understands the importance of increasing coverage and making sure that people are vaccinated particularly in the workplace.”
Professor Mosa Moshabela, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the Cabinet had given the country a one-week lifeline.
“It was a choice between a lockdown and some harm to the economy compared with vaccination, self-regulation, personal responsibility and preservation to the economy.
“When they have to take measures later, it would not be like we were not given a chance.
“I want to suggest that South Africans take this seriously and co-operate because if we don’t co-operate, that decision can quickly revert to a hard lockdown.”
Economist Professor Irrshad Kaseeram, of the University of Zululand, said the government was faced with the challenge of balancing health imperatives and economic demands.
He added that the discovery of the new variant, depending on how it behaved, could also affect the country’s momentum towards economic recovery and may force the government to re-prioritise its budget in order to deal with the pressing health needs brought about by the variant.