President Cyril Ramaphosa says that South Africa will keep its lockdown restrictions unchanged at level 1, but will look to offer booster shots to the elderly, and strengthen rules around vaccinations.
In a national address on Sunday evening (28 November), president Ramaphosa said that this will include mandatory vaccinations for certain activities.
“Government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations,” he said.
“The task team will report to the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccination chaired by the deputy president, which will make recommendations to Cabinet on a fair and sustainable approach to vaccine mandates.”
Ramaphosa said that the introduction of such measures is a difficult and complex issue, but is necessary to combat the spread of the virus.
“If we do not address this seriously and as a matter of urgency, we will continue to be vulnerable to new variants and will continue to suffer new waves of infection.”
He said that the country will remain at alert level 1, despite an increase in Covid-19 cases.
“In taking the decision not to impose further restrictions at this stage, we considered the fact that when we encountered previous waves of infection, vaccines were not widely available and far fewer people were vaccinated.”
“Vaccines do work. Vaccines are saving lives. Since we launched our public vaccination programme in May 2021, over 25 million vaccines doses have been administered in South Africa,” he said.
The president warned however, that new restrictions could be reintroduced at a later date if there is a further jump in Covid-19 cases. This will be reviewed in a week’s time, he said.
The push for vaccinations comes after the discovery of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, first detected in Botswana, and subsequently in a number of other countries.
Ramaphosa said this early identification was a direct result of the excellent work of South African scientists and epidemiologists, who are among the best globally. Through the work of these scientists, the president said that we currently know the following about the Omicron Covid-19 variant:
- Omicron has far more mutations than any previous variant;
- It can be detected by current tests;
- It is different from other variants and not directly related to Delta or Beta variants;
- It is responsible for most of the new infections in Gauteng and is now showing up across the country.
Ramaphosa said that there are a number of issues scientists still do not know about the variant, including:
- If it is more easily transmittable than other variants;
- Whether it increases the risk of infection;
- If the disease caused by the variant is more severe;
- How effective current vaccines are against the variant.
South Africa reported 1,600 average new cases in the last seven days, compared to 500 the previous week.
In addition, the proportion of positive Covid-19 cases has risen from 2% to 9% in just under a week. If cases continue to climb the country can expect a fourth wave of infections in just a few weeks, the president said.
Omicron mild to date
Symptoms linked to the omicron coronavirus variant have been mild so far, according to a Covid-19 adviser to the South Africa government and the Pretoria doctor who first sounded the alarm about the new strain.
There has been no real uptick in hospitalisations, Barry Schaub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News on Sunday.
“The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild-to-moderate cases, and that’s a good sign,” said Schoub, adding that it was still early days and nothing was certain yet.
South Africa has been hit with a number of travel bans from the UK and other nations, after its scientists found the mutated variant last week. Since then, a growing number of European countries, along with Australia, have also identified people infected with the variant.
The large number of mutations found in the omicron variant appears to destabilize the virus, which might make it less “fit” than the dominant delta strain, said Schoub.
“In a way, hopefully it won’t displace delta because delta we know responds very well to the vaccine,” he said.
Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, called symptoms associated with the variant at this point “different and so mild” compared with others she’d treated for the virus in recent months, Bloomberg reported.
Coetzee told the UK Telegraph that a number of healthy young men turned up at her clinic “feeling so tired.” About half were unvaccinated.
“What we are seeing clinically in South Africa and remember, I’m at the epicenter, that’s where I’m practicing, is extremely mild,” she said Sunday on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”
“We haven’t admitted anyone” to the hospital with the new variant,” she said. “I spoke to other colleagues of mine, the same picture.”
Asked if authorities around the world were panicking unnecessarily, Coetzee said “yes, at this stage I would say definitely. Two weeks from now on maybe we will say something different.”
Reporting with Bloomberg