The Consumer Goods Council of South Africa (CGCSA) has warned the government against the introduction of new alcohol restrictions as a response to the country’s fourth Covid-19 wave.
Deputy president David Mabuza is expected to hold meetings with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Tuesday (14 December) to discuss possible government interventions around the rise in cases driven by the Omicron variant.
The CGCSA said it acknowledges the government intention of striking a balance between protecting and saving lives and livelihoods and minimising disruptions to economic and social activity.
However, it cautioned any measures which affect or restrict the sale of liquor products, particularly for off-site consumption, will not only be discriminatory and uncompetitive but will worsen the already precarious viability of affected traders and put jobs at risk.
“The CGCSA is particularly concerned of restrictions that may be targeted at the liquor sector. Evidence has shown that liquor restrictions have not been effective in managing the rise in Covid-19 cases,” it said.
“The CGCSA has in the past been against applying a differentiated approach to restricting liquor sales by allowing those selling for onsite consumption to trade for seven days a week, while restricting the number of trading days for those selling for offsite consumption.”
The trade body said that many liquor operators are on the verge of closure as a result of the impact of previous restrictions, while others may never fully recover to pre-lockdown levels.
In previous restrictions, the off-site retail liquor sector has been allowed to trade for a limited period in a week, typically between Monday to Thursday, while those selling liquor for on-site consumption have continued to trade even throughout the weekend.
This has made it virtually impossible for small businesses operating in townships, rural and informal areas, to survive when they are expected to pay rent, levies and wages, yet only trading for four days a week, the group said.
“As the government considers its next response to the Omicron variant, we wish to reiterate that there is no need to restrict trading in the liquor sector, specifically because the differentiated approach has always been uncompetitive and has merely resulted in unintended consequences of putting the viability of the affected traders at risk, and driving trade into the entrenched illicit market which the government is already struggling to control.”
The CGCSA said retail sales for off-site consumption which account for only 30% of the total liquor throughput, are primarily for home consumption, and not for consumption at the time of purchase.
“In our view, the restriction of retail liquor sales imposed in the past has not achieved the objective of avoiding disorder or containing Covid-19 at the point of purchase. Nor has it had any effect in terms of reducing consumption, as opposed to purchases made during weekends.”
No evidence restrictions needed
Turning to the fourth wave, CGCSA said current indications show that the Omicron variant is demonstrating milder symptoms compared to the previous Delta variant, whose severe complications led to an increase in infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths.
There was also no evidence that the current fourth wave has so far resulted in higher hospital admissions, especially in ICU wards which could even justify tighter restrictions, let alone restricted liquor trading, the group said.
“We wish to point out that significant progress has been achieved to vaccinate as many people as possible, including children, and our industry has and continues to participate in government-driven initiatives to raise awareness of, and support the vaccination, of people.
“In our view, vaccination remains the most potent and effective weapon available to the country to ensure that we avoid strict lockdown restrictions, which have so far proved to be both financially and economically ruinous for the country.”
The retail liquor sector, and indeed the entire value chain, cannot afford another period of restricted trading because the government will simply be accelerating the eventual demise of some operators, and with it the attendant irrecoverable job losses, it said.