President Cyril Ramaphosa will hold meetings this week to discuss the possibility of introducing further lockdown restrictions and vaccine mandates in response to the new Omicron variant.
Writing in his weekly letter to the public on Monday (6 December), the president confirmed he would convene a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council to review the state of the pandemic. “This will enable us to take whatever further measures are needed to keep people safe and healthy,” he said.
Ramaphosa said that the country is currently experiencing a rate of infections not seen since the pandemic started. Over the last week, the number of daily infections has increased five-fold. He said nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 tests now come back positive.
“While the surge in infections is of great concern, we should remember that we anticipated it. Disease modellers in our country have told us that we would likely experience a fourth wave around this time and that it was almost inevitable that new variants of the virus would emerge.
“As we enter the fourth wave, and as the country gears up for the festive season, the urgent priority is for more people to get vaccinated. Scientific evidence shows that vaccination is the most effective means of preventing the spread of new infections and that vaccines reduce severe illness, hospitalisation and death.”
Ramaphosa said that South Africa now has sufficient supplies of vaccines and has vaccination stations set up in every part of the country.
As every day passes and as infections rise, the reasons to get vaccinated become more compelling, and the need becomes ever more urgent, he said.
“Vaccination is essential for our economic recovery because as more people are vaccinated, more areas of economic activity will be opened up. We can do our work and socialise under less stringent restrictions, and our lives can return to some degree of normality.
“As individuals, we must carefully consider the implications of the risk to ourselves of being unvaccinated and the risk of spreading the infection to our children, parents, relatives, co-workers and those we do not even know.”
While Ramaphosa did not touch on the issue of vaccine mandates directly in his letter, he confirmed to the Daily Maverick that discussions would take place this week.
In a national address on 28 November, Ramaphosa said that government plans to introduce mandatory vaccinations for certain activities. The government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations, the president said in his address.
“I’ve said that I want this to happen very quickly because, with the rising wave of infections, I need to act quickly so that Cabinet can take a decision on this matter,” the president told the newspaper.
“Of course, it could all be slowed down by the intensity of consultations and talking to various sectors of our society. I expect the (timeline) to be fairly quick, and we’ll allow a report that says, ‘We are consulting. We will meet this constituency and that constituency.’ I’ll listen to that, and, if need be, I’ll also be willing to engage with some of those constituencies.”
Asked about his view on vaccine mandates, Ramaphosa said that while he recognised the issue was divisive, strong leadership was needed to ensure people move in the same direction.
“I believe very strongly in vaccinations, and vaccination is our strongest weapon against Covid-19. I believe that we should give our people a chance so they can go through this and see the dangers of not being vaccinated.”
The president will reportedly receive feedback from the vaccine mandate task team at a meeting on Wednesday.
While the government will continue its vaccination drive, Ramaphosa has also indicated that government will meet to discuss new intervention measures this week.
He added that South Africans need to be far more diligent in reducing contact with people outside their household.
“Social distancing is difficult as the festive season approaches, but the evidence shows that gatherings – mainly those held indoors – carry the greatest risk of transmission. Many people have been disappointed by the cancellation of some big events in recent days, but it is by far the safest and most responsible thing to do now.
“Fortunately, we all know what we need to do, such as wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowds. Now we just need to make sure that we do these things more consistently and without exception.”
Ramaphosa said the country now needs to significantly up its game on prevention measures to ensure collective safety.
“We should not wait for new regulations before we reduce the size of the gatherings, as research has shown this to be an effective means of reducing the spread of the virus. All public and private facilities, including workplaces, taxis, buses and trains, must ensure adequate ventilation to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Every facility that serves the public has a legal responsibility to ensure that people practice social distancing. We must reinvigorate our masking programme, where we insist on no entry into any public or business facility without a mask.”
Read: New rules for travel, weddings, and accommodation in South Africa