South Africa is likely to see a fifth wave of Covid-19 infections as it heads towards the winter months, says health minister Joe Phaahla.
In a media briefing on Friday (4 February), Phaahla said this is in line with previous trends, with vaccinations still seen as the country’s best form of protection. He added that the country could see an increase in cases earlier than expected should they be driven by a new Covid variant.
South Africa has seen a plateau in the decline of new Covid-19 cases in the last two weeks, with an increase in infections reported in the Free State, Gauteng and Mpumalanga.
Phaahla said this plateau can be linked to the opening of schools, with more people under 20 testing positive in recent weeks. It is also possible that increased movement after the December holidays has also contributed.
It is unlikely that any Omicron subvariants – including BA.2 – have contributed to the plateau, he said. The Covid-19 test positivity rate is expected to reach 5% by the end of February.
On Thursday (3 February), South Africa reported 3,266 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total reported to 3,616,075. Deaths have reached 95,545, while recoveries have climbed to 3,465,681, leaving the country with a balance of 54,849 active cases. The total number of vaccines administered is 30,101,147.
Masks to stay for now
Phaahla confirmed that South Africa currently has no plans to drop its requirements for mandatory masks in public places, despite the announcement that countries such as the UK would do so.
He added that the government’s restrictions are primarily informed by expert recommendations and, at this stage, South Africa has not been advised to go this route.
“There are different approaches in different countries – there are still a number of countries where masks are still seen as essential in controlling the Covid-19 infections.
“We are going to have to learn from experiences elsewhere – but we have not reached that stage yet. If we are at this stage in a month or two, I cannot say.”
He added that the issue will be discussed going forward based on the success of such policies in other countries.
Vaccine mandates and gatherings
Phaahla confirmed that the government was still formalising its position on mandatory vaccinations in South Africa after it missed an expected January deadline.
He added that his department is expected to present its report on mandatory vaccines when the next National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) meeting is convened by president Cyril Ramaphosa. A formal decision will then be announced, he said.
Phaahla said that proposals have also been tabled to relax restrictions around arts and culture events – including allowing crowds to return to sporting events.
These will also be confirmed in the next NCCC meeting, with a formal decision to follow, he said.
Read: Scientists have some good news about the new Omicron variant spreading in South Africa