- President disappointed over travel bans on South Africa and calls for reversals
- Covid vaccine booster shots deployed as vaccination mandate is being considered
- About half of the South African population have received a dose of Covid-19 vaccine
- Adherence to existing restrictions advised to avoid stricter measures
- Omicron variant of Covid-19 has far more mutations than any previous variant but symptoms mild so far.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says the country will keep its lockdown restrictions unchanged at level 1 but would offer booster shots to the elderly and strengthen rules around vaccination.
Ramaphosa announced in a national address on Sunday evening that the government has set up a task team to undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations.
The measures come on the heels of the discovery of Omicron, a new strain of coronavirus that has caused a raft of travel bans against South Africa and other Southern Africa countries.
The president expressed deep disappointment over the travel restrictions.
“We are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel from a number of Southern African countries following the identification of the Omicron variant.
This is a clear and completely unjustified departure from the commitment that many of these countries made at the meeting of G20 countries in Rome last month,” he declared.
The Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and subsequently detected in South Africa. Scientists have also identified cases in Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Denmark, and Israel.
President Ramaphosa pointed out that the early identification was “a direct result of the excellent work of South African scientists and epidemiologists, who are among the best globally, and a direct result of the investment that our Science and Innovation and Health Departments have made in our genomic surveillance capabilities.
We are one of the countries in the world that set up a surveillance network throughout the country to help us monitor the behaviour of Covid-19,” he claimed.
What is known 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 Province and is now showing up across South Africa.
According to Ramaphosa, scientists still do not know a number of issues about the variant, including:
- whether Omicron is transmitted more easily between people,
- whether it increases the risk of reinfection,
- whether the variant causes more severe disease, and
- how effective the current vaccines are against the new variant.
South Africa reported 1,600 average new cases in the last seven days, compared to 500 the previous week.
The president enjoined the people to adhere strictly to the prescribed measures, warning that new restrictions could be introduced if there is a further jump in Covid-19 cases.
He assured the nation of the efficacy of vaccines.
“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,” Ramaphosa said.
Level 1 Restrictions
The current restrictions, to be reviewed in a week, include:
- A curfew from 12 midnight to 4 am.
- No more than 750 people may gather indoors, and no more than 2,000 people may gather outdoors.
- Where the venue is too small to accommodate these numbers with appropriate social distancing, then no more than 50 per cent of the capacity of the venue may be used.
- No more than 100 people are permitted at a funeral, and night vigils, after-funeral gatherings and ‘after-tears’ gatherings are not allowed.
- The wearing of masks in public places is still mandatory, and failure to wear a mask when required remains a criminal offence.
- The sale of alcohol is permitted according to the regular licence conditions but may not be sold during curfew hours.
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.
On Sunday, Barry Schaub, chairman of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News that there had been no real uptick in hospitalisations.
“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.
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 had treated for the virus in recent months, Bloomberg reported.
Asked if authorities around the world were panicking unnecessarily, Coetzee said “yes, at this stage, I would say definitely. Two weeks from now, maybe we will say something different.”
Some opposition party leaders who spoke to the media after the president’s address expressed concerns over the proposed vaccination mandate, claiming that the lack of trust in the government was responsible for vaccine resistance.
However, Cas Coovadia of Business Unity South Africa commended government efforts and urged South Africans to follow the science and embrace vaccination, which he said has been proven to be the most effective remedy so far.