President Cyril Ramaphosa says that the government’s controversial decisions on alcohol and tobacco sales under South Africa’s lockdown were based on extensive risk assessment – and that these topics are still open for debate.
The president was responding to questions in a virtual parliament on Thursday (18 June), where he was asked on what basis the decisions to open schools, relax alcohol sales, and maintain the prohibition on tobacco were made.
The government has faced wide criticism for these key decisions, with unions arguing that the opening of schools has put learners and teachers at risk of contracting the coronavirus, and healthcare workers lamenting the increase in trauma cases at hospitals due to alcohol abuse.
The tobacco issue, meanwhile, is being tested in court on a constitutional and rationality basis, with sales prohibited for almost three months.
Responding to the question, the president said that all decisions taken around the regulations are based on a risk assessment, after discussions with various stakeholders.
He said that they are also a result of government balancing the need to protect the health of citizens, with other imperatives such as economic and educational needs.
“With schooling – we didn’t want to see the country losing a year of school. So we approached the Medical Advisory Council and asked, how can we make this happen?” he said.
The result was that protective measures and protocols have been put in place – and where they have not, those schools should not open.
Ramaphosa said that the coronavirus virus is going to be with South Africa for a long time, “possibly for years”, so risk-adjustment based decisions needed to be taken.
“We need to live with the virus, manage it, and ensure that we adjust the risk. In doing so, as we move on, we need to save lives and livelihoods as well,” he said.
Around the opening up sales of alcohol, Ramaphosa said this was discussed thoroughly with stakeholders and advisory councils, including the National Coronavirus Command Council.
It was decided that “if we can put in place the various measures…we should lower those restrictions as much as we can,” he said.
However, since alcohol sales were re-opened, “South Africans have gone overboard,” the president said, adding that this should feed into the wider debate.
“South Africa is one of those countries that abuses alcohol more than other countries…so we have to look at how precisely we could (handle that).”
“Could we have banned alcohol forever? Many would say you could not. When would the right time have been to open it up? Was level 3 the correct time, or was it level 1? That is a matter that’s still open for debate,” he said.
On the ban of tobacco sales, that is also a matter that was discussed extensively, Ramaphosa said.
“Many of our people, through various formations, participated in the debate, and that is what led to the change of decision which we had announced.
“It was after participation and the views that we got from people. Of course, now it is in the hands of the court.”
Ultimately, the president said that change comes slowly, as the risks associated with the virus need to be carefully handled.
“The virus is going to be with us for a long time. We need to adjust the risk, analyse the risk and arrive at an outcome to move forward. We cannot remain locked up forever and a day,” he said.