Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize.

With South Africa’s number of COVID-19 cases continuing to decline, the Department of Health will recommend that current restrictions – relating to travel, the sale of alcohol and current curfews – should be eased.

Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, said in a statement issued late last night (Monday, September 14) that he would make these recommendations to the National Coronavirus Command Council, which, in turn, would make final recommendations to Cabinet.

Mkhize pointed out that the number of detected cases countrywide continued to decline.  “Since the 22nd of August we have reported under 3 000 cases a day. Supporting this decline is also a demonstrable decline in persons under investigation, general ward admissions, ICU admissions, deaths and excess deaths.”

He added, however, that whatever decisions were made, it was important to emphasise that the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still remained and that non-pharmaceutical interventions remained important “as we learn to co-exist with the Coronavirus”.

His statement is supported by Chair in the field of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at the Wits School of Governance, Professor Alex van den Heever, who said last week that South Africa was shooting itself in the foot by keeping tourism closed as there was no public health reason to do so.

“There is no reason why tourism poses a greater risk than any other sector by being open,” he said, noting that the tourism sector was far better able to manage the risk of the pandemic now than it was in March.

Tourism specialist, Gillian Saunders, agreed that the tourism sector should be reopened in full “by default and managed by exception”. She noted that, when considering the pandemic risk, there was no reason to differentiate between a foreign tourist from an African country compared with an overseas country.

“The COVID risk and mitigation measures are the same and the approach to people travelling to South Africa from an African country or from an overseas country should be identical. The new COVID management situation with different behaviours and following protocols applies equally to nationals from any country,” she said.

South Africa’s tourism sector has adopted stringent protocols through the Tourism Business Council of South Africa’s Travel Safe – Eat Safe programme, which has been informed by all international and local health and safety guidelines, including the World Health Organization, the National Institute for Communicable Disease, and the Department of Health, and endorsed by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Besides being able to reopen safely, South Africa must, as far as possible, avoid the requirement of a quarantine period, reiterated Van den Heever.

“It is imperative that safe alternatives to quarantine approaches also be considered. Careful consideration needs to be given to developing such an approach as it will remove a considerable barrier to international travel. Workable options can be developed in conjunction with infectious disease specialists and institutionalised into health protocols.”