South Africa has eased restrictions meant to stop the spread of coronavirus even as the percentage of people testing positive for the disease exceeded 20% for the 19th straight day.
The government lifted a curfew that was in place from midnight to 4am with immediate effect and allowed establishments selling alcohol to operate beyond 11pm. This is the first time in almost two years that liquor sales won’t be restricted by any Covid-19 related measures. Wearing of masks in public will remain mandatory, according to a statement.
“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele said in an e-mailed statement issued after a cabinet meeting on Thursday. He cited a drop in new cases for the week ending 25 December and the availability of hospital beds.
The move to ease restrictions may stem from South Africa’s push to recover from its biggest economic contraction in at least a quarter century last year, and spur spending during the holiday season. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg estimate GDP expanded 4.9% in 2021, slower than a previous projection. Meanwhile, test positivity rate rose on Thursday to 28.1%, far exceeding the 5% that the World Health Organisation deems tolerable.
“Numbers are still up in South Africa, especially the positivity rate,” Tulio de Oliveira, the head of gene sequencing institutions in South Africa who presented findings about Omicron last month, said on Twitter. “We are still not out of the woods.”
The country also reported 126 deaths on Thursday, the most since the discovery of the Omicron variant. Hospitalisations also increased.
To remove the rest of the Covid restrictions, South Africa needs to accelerate vaccinations, said Wolfgang Preiser, head of medical virology at Stellenbosch University.
Only then “we can be more confident that, whatever happens and even with breakthrough infections, there won’t be bad consequences”, Preiser said on Friday in an interview with radio station 702. “We need to keep immunity levels up. And as that improves in the country, it will be time to also walk away from the other restrictions.”
Other rules eased by the government include:
- Indoor gatherings are now restricted to 1 000 people (previously 750);
- Outdoor gatherings are limited to 2 000; and
- No more than 50% of capacity of an indoor venue may be used. — (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP