Court cases and vaccine passports raise questions about future alcohol bans in South Africa

The South African Liquor Brandowners Association (Salba) has dismissed a proposal that Covid-19 vaccinations should be a requirement for purchasing alcohol, warning that it is not a viable option for South Africa.

The industry body said that it supports public education and awareness efforts to encourage vaccination and behaviours that prevent infections such as social distancing, wearing of masks and regular use of sanitisers.

Salba said that its members are actively encouraging their employees to take the vaccine, and will work with all stakeholders to promote the vaccine drive to reach population or herd immunity. However, it said that it does not have room to block customers from buying alcohol.

“We do not believe the proposal is viable because businesses, irrespective of the product offering cannot deny access to consumers.

“Health education and awareness programmes are the established measures to encourage voluntary uptake for health interventions,” it said.

The alcohol industry group was responding to a proposal mooted by Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba, who said her department was in discussions with liquor traders in the province about refusing to sell alcohol to unvaccinated customers.

Ramathuba said that while there is no national legislation that forces people to vaccinate, the government needs to look at other ways of increasing vaccine uptake.

“It is not compulsory in our country, and that includes Limpopo. However, as a health department, we can’t just fold our arms and keep complaining about vaccine hesitancy when we know we can engage the liquor industry.”

Ramathuba said that the liquor industry is one of the segments which is hardest hit when a new wave of Covid-19 cases impacts the country, with the government quick to ban alcohol to help reduce the strain on hospitals.

The MEC said that there is an opportunity for South Africa to avert a fourth Covid-19 wave of infections later this year if enough people are vaccinated.

She said it is up to the liquor industry to decide whether it accepts the government’s proposals  – but warned that alcohol could be banned again if another wave hits the country.

Court case

South Africa has faced complete alcohol sales bans on four separate occasions since the end of March 2020 as part of the country’s lockdown restrictions. Under the country’s current adjusted level 3 lockdown, which came into effect on 26 July, the sale of alcohol from retail outlets for off-site consumption is permitted between 10h00 and 18h00 from Monday to Thursday.

Alcohol sales for on-site consumption are permitted as per licence conditions up to 20h00.

In a case held in the Western Cape High Court this week Vinpro, a non-profit company representing 3,500 South African wine producers, contested the approach followed by the government towards liquor ban restrictions within the Disaster Management Act.

“Since the start of this pandemic, we have argued that the provinces, not the national government, should decide whether or not to impose liquor restrictions and should do so with reference to provincial circumstances, including the need to preserve capacity in trauma units in hospitals in the province,” said Vinpro managing director Rico Basson.

“We know provinces are affected differently by the pandemic; therefore, we believe a differentiated approach in handling the crisis is needed to limit the economic impact of a lockdown.”

Following arguments from the legal representatives of Vinpro and the government, a full bench of three judges has reserved judgement on the case.

“We are hopeful for a positive outcome and eagerly await feedback on these important principles that would govern decision-making regarding future wine sales bans,” said Basson.

“In the interim, we remain committed to our various efforts to fully reopen and rebuild the South African wine industry.”

Read: A vaccine passport to buy booze in South Africa?

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Court cases and vaccine passports raise questions about future alcohol bans in South Africa