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State of disaster may soon be lifted, but don't put away your masks just yet

Health minister says curbs will remain as long as the virus circulates

13 February 2022 - 00:04
Health minister Joe Phaahla says South Africans will still need to wear masks even when the Covid state of disaster is lifted.
Health minister Joe Phaahla says South Africans will still need to wear masks even when the Covid state of disaster is lifted.
Image: Freddy Mavunda

South Africans will have to continue observing measures put in place during the pandemic after the Covid state of disaster is lifted, says health minister Joe Phaahla.

They will have to carry on wearing masks, sanitising, social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings.

Phaahla said on Friday that the government has its work cut out after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the state of disaster will end as soon as alternative measures to contain the pandemic are finalised.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, he said: “We need to find a formula which says it is still in your best interest, in certain conditions, to at least have your mask on. And hand hygiene is important, not only for Covid-19.

“As long as we have circulation of the virus, especially indoors, we are going to have to continue [social distancing].”

Phaahla said there would have to be limits on the size of gatherings until the end of this year. “The virus will still be there,” he added.

The president was concerned about the psychological burden of continuing the state of disaster, said Phaahla, “but the difficulty we are going through is that we cannot go the route of [UK prime minister] Boris Johnson and just announce in parliament that we are throwing in the towel”.

After lifting its Covid regulations, Britain saw an increase in the number of infections, he said.

“Even if you have 1% of seriously ill people when you have 200,000 infections a day, it’s a big number and can overwhelm health facilities and become a challenge ... So we are trying to find the correct combination and legal framework without the Disaster Management Act,” he added.

New regulations under the National Health Act can only be implemented three months after being gazetted, Phaahla said, and the act itself requires amendments if it is to anchor legislation for managing Covid.

In the meantime, the government could not “just throw away everything, because the virus is still there, it’s deadly and it’s changing unpredictably”.

Once the state of disaster is lifted it would mean that “if the bulk of those controls have to be under the National Health Act, the minister of health would then be the regulator”.

Phaahla said legal advisers would have to examine the act to see if it empowers the health minister to regulate the behaviour of the population.

With the number of vaccinations being administered below 400,000 a week, Phaahla said about 10-million adults still have to be vaccinated for SA to reach its target of 70% coverage.

 “It is a headache and I have asked the team leading the vaccination programme to look at how we communicate and other incentives, especially to young people,” he said.

“In about a week’s time we will be saying more on other interventions which try to get closer to younger people.”

Two-thirds of over-60s have had at least one jab, but Phaahla said only one-third of those in the 13-34 age group have been vaccinated.

We are under pressure from various sectors, especially workplaces, who feel that the government should endorse mandatory vaccination
Health minister Joe Phaahla

Work on vaccine mandates is continuing, he said. “I have been pushing our directors-general to finalise that work. We are under pressure from various sectors, especially workplaces, who feel that the government should endorse mandatory vaccination. It’s not a matter we are taking lightly, it’s a matter we want to package properly.”

Phaahla said the conditions of any mandate must be clear so people are not denied basic services. 

“We are conscious that this is a matter we cannot avoid forever. We must define the conditions under which we advocate or support mandatory vaccination. The matter is not off the table, it’s taking a bit longer [to formulate].” 

In the event that a new variant emerges, Phaahla said South Africans should expect tighter measures.

“The president will have to communicate that very clearly — that in case things get worse we must be ready to adjust.”


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