Fears of booze shortage as outlets brace for alcohol rush on Monday

31 May 2020 - 00:00 By SUTHENTIRA GOVENDER and JEFF WICKS
A Johannesburg liquor outlet gets ready for the big opening day tomorrow. Bottle stores expect a rush of customers aiming to replenish low stocks. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo
A Johannesburg liquor outlet gets ready for the big opening day tomorrow. Bottle stores expect a rush of customers aiming to replenish low stocks. Picture: Sebabatso Mosamo

Liquor suppliers and outlets are gearing up for the great booze rush when they throw open their doors for business tomorrow. But they may not have enough stock to meet demand.

As SA moves to level 3 of the lockdown tomorrow, alcohol will go on sale after a two-month ban that brought the industry to its knees, boosted black-market sales and left many South Africans parched and angry.

The government's announcement on Thursday about trading days and times left liquor manufacturers and distributors scrambling to deploy stocks around the country.

Sean Robinson, a spokesperson for the Liquor Traders Association, which represents about 1,400 independent outlets, said it was expecting a rush but was grateful that the government had extended trading days and times beyond the initial proposal of three days until midday.

The association proposed that trading should take place from Monday to Saturday and said there should be restrictions on the amount of alcohol people could buy.

"I do think there will be a lot of stores that will be low on stock because just before lockdown there was a surge in buying and they haven't been able to stock up since," said Robinson.

He owns Ultra Liquors and Liberty Liquors and has doubled security details at most of his stores to manage access and ensure social distancing.

"We are appealing to consumers to be patient. There are going to queues, but we will be doing our best to manage everybody quickly and efficiently. We are not going to have everything available, so people must have alternatives on their shopping lists. When you get a surge, the first 100 people may take a particular item.

"Many of the smaller retailers don't have huge storerooms that will enable them to keep backup stock."

Robinson said the government had not restricted the amount of alcohol people could buy, but stores might implement restrictions depending on stock levels.

Beer and spirits distributor Diageo, among whose brands is Johnnie Walker, has cleared its imported stock at the ports.

"We had a number of containers that were at sea when the lockdown started but we have cleared those into our warehouses," said Diageo spokesperson Sibani Mngadi.

Distell told the Sunday Times it was "confident" it would meet the demand for its alcohol products.

The company said it had tailored its supply chain and logistics to ensure that customers could be helped on time "and in full", and that orders would be filled.

"In addition, together with retailers and the wider industry, we have engaged government to allow the sector at least 48 hours before the start of level 3 so we can deliver stock to customers to enable them to prepare their stores and be ready for the opening," said a company statement.

Massmart, which owns Game and Makro stores, and Pick n Pay and the Shoprite Group said they were working with suppliers to ensure that shelves were well stocked.

While many are rejoicing at the unbanning, the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence said that lifting the ban could trigger relapses for those addicted to alcohol, lead to domestic violence and harmful binge drinking.

"The uplifting of the ban is likely to lead to an increase in Covid-19 infections because alcohol compromises the immune system. We are likely to see people binge drinking, which has proven dangerous," said the council's director, Adrie Vermeulen.

It is quite possible that institutions will have a severe influx of patients, but given the time we have had to prepare, I don't foresee the catastrophic scenes we have seen in the US
Prof Ken Banfford of Netcare Milpark Hospital

Trauma specialists predicted more hospital admissions following an expected increase in violence and road accidents.

Prof Ken Boffard, a trauma director at Netcare's Milpark Hospital, said trauma cases at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, Charlotte Maxeke Hospital and Milpark had dropped dramatically in the lockdown.

"Normally, 60% of motor-vehicle crash victims are over the limit and 80% of interpersonal violence cases are over the alcohol limit."

But he said Gauteng hospitals had had three months to prepare for the wave of Covid-19 patients and, as a result, facilities were prepared for drinking-related trauma.

"Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town is at the sharp end of this thing and they are swamped.

"It is quite possible that institutions will have a severe influx of patients, but given the time we have had to prepare, I don't foresee the catastrophic scenes we have seen in the US."

Dr Tim Hardcastle, a trauma surgeon in KwaZulu-Natal, said hospitals were already running short of beds.

"My concern is that I am going to run out of beds when they open up again [the sale of liquor] and the trauma unit fills up," he said.


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