Health minister Joe Phaahla says the government has not made any decisions regarding tighter lockdown restrictions following the emergence of the Omicron Covid variant this week.
In a briefing on Sunday (28 November), the minister said that the government is not taking the matter lightly, and that it knows the impact that tighter restrictions can have on the country and the economy.
“We have not made any decisions on any restrictions; these are matters which are not taken very lightly because we know the impact,” Phaahla said. “These are matters which are dealt with through committees and consultations.”
“If there are to be any (restrictions), it will come after very thorough consultations with stakeholders,” he said. “As such, I can assure the nation that such decisions have not been made.”
The minister’s comments come after the meeting of the National Coronovirus Command Council was moved from Sunday to Saturday, fueling speculation that tighter lockdown restrictions would be imminent.
The meeting was moved forward due to the global panic over the new Omicron Covid variant which was sequenced in Southern Africa this week.
South African scientists and the Department of Health presented data on the variant on Thursday, cautioning that, while still in the early stages of sequencing, the variant could prove to be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.
Despite stressing that there was not yet evidence to show this is the case – with weeks of research still needed to scope the full impact of the variant’s 30-plus mutations – many countries immediately imposed travel bans and suspended flights to and from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.
The variant has since been detected in several of these nations, some with no ties to Southern Africa at all. The harsh response to Southern Africa has been criticised as being unwarranted, unnecessary, and could be seen as punishing the region for being transparent about its research.
Local businesses and organisations have urged the government to look to alternative methods of controlling the spread of the new variant besides imposing economically damaging lockdown restrictions.
Many are calling for mandatory vaccination policies to force the unvaccinated population to protect themselves and others, instead of locking the nation down or restricting travel ahead of the busy holiday period.
Some academics have warned that it would be difficult to convince South Africans to abide by lockdown regulations when every political party, including the governing ANC, blatantly ignored these protocols during election campaigning.
Business groups, including the Black Business Council and Business For South Africa, said that restricting access to private venues or adopting vaccine mandates would be better than giving businesses the ‘death sentence’ of harder lockdown.
Only about a third of South African adults are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.