The Department of Health has published a list of recommendations that it received from the country’s top scientific and medical officials over the last six months, revealing several instances where government went against expert advice on lockdown.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize appointed a Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on 23 March 2020 as a means of gathering advice to inform the government’s decisions around key lockdown decisions.
In his many ‘family meetings’ and national addresses on lockdown, president Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised that government’s decisions on easing or tightening restrictions in the country – especially those around smoking, drinking, and gatherings – were based on these scientific recommendations.
However, the latest set of advisories show that the the government ignored or rejected a number of proposals from the MAC, raising questions around what and whose advice it followed.
Some of the key deviations between the government’s advice and the actual lockdown restrictions are outlined below.
South Africa faced a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic at the end of December 2020, leading in to the new year.
While the increase in cases was recognised by the MAC at the time, it recommended that the country be moved to a level 2 lockdown and that the existing curfew should be maintained at 23h00 to 04h00 so that business could stay open for longer.
It recommended that indoor social, cultural and religious gatherings be limited to 50 persons, including reducing indoor dining or drinking in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shebeens to a maximum of 50 persons or 50% of capacity.
No mention was made by the MAC of reintroducing an alcohol ban.
“At this stage, stricter lockdown measures than level 2 are not recommended,” the MAC said. “Based on trends in cases and admissions in the two weeks following the initiation of Level 2, an assessment should be made of the impact of level 2 restrictions and whether a further change in alert levels is warranted.”
- What happened: While the country faced some restrictions for most of the month, president Ramaphosa reintroduced a level 3 lockdown on 28 December which included an extended curfew between 21h00 and 06h00, and the complete ban on the sale of alcohol. All beaches, dams, rivers and public parks and public pools in hotspot areas were also closed to the public. All indoor and outdoor gatherings were also prohibited.
With the country experiencing a second Covid-19 wave at the end of December and start of January, questions were raised about when schools would re-open.
The MAC’s recommendations were that early childhood development centres and primary schools should re-open as planned on 27 January. This is because younger children were less likely to transmit the virus to each other and to staff.
The MAC indicated that only the opening of high schools be delayed by two weeks.
- What happened: Government announced that schools would be closed until 15 February 2021.
As the country approached the Easter weekend in April, many experts raised concerns about super-spreader events, particularly around religious gatherings and increased socialising.
The MAC recommended that that country move to alert level 2 and that local municipalities assess the risks associated with expected beach/ parks/dams/other recreational areas attendance during the Easter period.
It also recommended a limit on all gatherings, including religious and sports meetings, to a maximum of 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors.
Instead of banning alcohol sales over the weekend, the MAC recommended that the sale of alcohol should be restricted to Monday to Thursday between 10h00 to 18h00.
- What happened: Contrary to previous advisories, where government tightened lockdown in the face of calls for eased restrictions, the opposite happened over Easter. On 30 March 2021, president Ramaphosa announced that the sale of alcohol for off-site consumption would be prohibited over the Easter weekend as part of a level 1 lockdown. He also loosened rules around mass gatherings for faith worshippers over the period.