The whole of South Africa will move to coronavirus (Covid-19) level 3 lockdown on June 1, thereby reopening most of the country’s economy, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday.
“Cabinet has determined that the alert level for the whole country should be lowered from level 4 to level 3 with effect from June 1,” he said in a televised address to the nation.
Ramaphosa said this would see some eight million people return to work, including most civil servants. The nationwide night-time curfew would be lifted, but South Africa’s national borders would remain closed, apart from the transport of goods and the repatriations of citizens.
He stressed that the worst of the pandemic was yet to come in terms of infections, and that these were expected to rise faster in coming weeks.
The president said the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had risen to 22,583 by Sunday, with about 11,000 of those considered “active” cases. Of these patients, 842 were in hospital and 128 were in intensive care. The death toll from the virus stood at 429. To date, about half of the total number of confirmed cases had recovered from the virus.
“One-third of the cumulative confirmed cases were recorded in the last week alone. And we should expect that these numbers will rise even further and even faster,” he said, and urged citizens to comply with health risk precautions. “The risk of a massive increase in infections is now greater than at the start of the outbreak in our country,”
Although all regions would move from level 4 to level 3, those metropolitan areas with a high infection rate would be declared “hostpots” and would see intensive public health interventions. This included the government sending a team of epidemiologists, family practitioners, nurses, community health workers and emergency medical services to each of the areas.
“A hotspot is an area that has more than five infected people per 100,000 people, or where new infections are increasing at a fast pace,” he explained.
These included Cape Town, Johannesburg, Tshwane, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Buffalo City, but the list would be reviewed every fortnight. Hotspot areas could be returned to level 4 or 5 should the spread of infections not be contained and if there was a risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed.
The West Coast, Overberg, and Cape Winelands district municipalities in the Western Cape, Chris Hani district in the Eastern Cape, and iLembe district in KwaZulu-Natal had also been declared hotspots.
“We are particularly concerned about the situation in the City of Cape Town and in the Western Cape in general,” Ramaphosa said, noting that the province was home to more than half of all infections recorded nationwide.
He acknowledged that government recognised a measure of anxiety among parents regarding the announced, staged re-opening of schools from June 1, and said there would no consequence if parents decided to keep their children at home. “No parent will be forced to send their child to school if they are worried about safety at the schools,” he said.
The regulations that would pertain to level 3 would see the sale of alcohol allowed, within certain limitations, but the prohibition on the sale of cigarettes would remain in place for health reasons. Restaurants, hotels, bars, conference venues, and hair salons would remain closed.
Ramaphosa sought to smooth over a public spat between the health ministry and the president of the South African Medical Research Council, Glenda Grey, who has challenged the usefulness of continued restrictions.
“We appreciate the diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response,” he said.
Ramaphosa stressed that the purpose of the lockdown had always been to slow the spread of the infection to give the state time to prepare the healthcare system for an inevitable surge in cases, not to stop it.
He said the lockdown had been a success in this regard, and some 20,000 hospital beds had been prepared and 27 field hospitals built to accommodate coronavirus patients. But there had also been difficulties, including a shortage of diagnostic supplies, which he attributed to a great demand around the world.
“This has contributed to lengthy turnaround times for coronavirus testing, which in turn has had an impact on the effectiveness of our programmes,” he said.
“The scale and the speed of the public health response to this emergency has been impressive, but there is still much more that we need to do. We have known all along that the lockdown would only delay the spread of the virus, but that it would not be able to stop it,” Ramaphosa said.