NEW HEALTH RULES
Health Minister Joe Phaahla: ‘Covid-19 is still a threat, it is not done’
Amid accusations and criticism of proposed new health regulations, Health Minister, Dr Joe Phaahla, stressed in parliament on Thursday morning that the Department of Health had no desire to control people’s lives indefinitely.
Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla, on Thursday vowed to investigate emails that were sent to hundreds (some politicians claim thousands) of people who commented on the health regulations to manage and prevent possible Covid-19 outbreaks following a decision to lift the state of disaster in the country in March.
During a sitting of the Portfolio Committee on Health , several members of Parliament complained that they were inundated by complaints from members of the public who received a reply to their comments on the new health regulations that their emails were deleted without reading.
Phaahla said he thinks it was just a technical issue.
Answering allegations from members of Parliament that he and the team from the Department of Health had to be forced to appear before the Portfolio Committee to discuss the regulations, Phaahla said they came willingly.
But there was unhappiness among members of the portfolio committee that the meeting had been restricted to two hours saying that it was too important an issue to rush. The meeting eventually lasted three hours before Phaahla excused himself for another engagement.
From the outset, he added, he wanted to make it clear that the Department of Health “had no desire to control people’s lives indefinitely”.
“Covid-19 is still a threat. It is not done,” Phaahla said.
The new regulations include:
- International travellers must still present a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours if they do not have a full vaccination certificate;
- There are still restrictions on night vigils and after-funeral gatherings;
- Restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings are set at 50% of venue capacity if participants have vaccine certificates, wear masks and maintain social distancing; and
- The attendance of indoor gatherings without proof of vaccination will be limited to only 1,000 people and 2,000 for outdoors, with physical distancing of at least one metre.
The regulations further stipulate that all information used for contact tracing will be de-identified and personal information in these registers must be destroyed within six weeks of the National State of Disaster being lifted. Adv Lufuno Makhosi from the Dept of Health’s legal department added that the new regulations will introduce a judge who will be tasked with overseeing the protection of the information used for contact tracing.
The mask mandate for indoor spaces and public transport remains, as do regulations for the sanitising of hands at the doors of business premises and shops.
The new regulations further require compulsory medical screening for people with elevated temperatures exiting or entering the country. People who present with a fever and test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus will have to apply for “self-quarantine” and if refused could be sent to state quarantine facilities.
Temperature screening for local flights will also be reintroduced, according to draft regulations.
Like interim regulations currently in place, the new regulations make provision for the forced hospitalisation and testing of infected people refusing testing and treatment.
Phaahla stressed that measures must be put in place to enable public health authorities to manage and control any future outbreaks.
Makhosi said the draft health regulations are amendments to rules that have been in place since 2017. While the coronavirus that is specifically caused by the novel SARS-COV2 virus, is not mentioned by name as a notifiable disease in the regulations, advocate Lufuno Mkhosi from the health department has indicated that the annexure to the existing regulations refers to any novel pathogen that causes a respiratory infection including Mers and those that fall in the family of coronaviruses.
The regulations, which introduce fairly extensive measures to allow for the compulsory testing, treatment and quarantine of people who refuse to submit themselves for such to hospital, if authorised by a judge or a magistrate, Phaahla said was “the bare minimum” that had to be kept in place.
Mkhosi said most of the regulations that will be used to fight future outbreaks of coronavirus infections in the country were in place since 2017. He specifically referred to regulations that allowed for the heads of provincial departments to apply for a court order from a judge to force an infected person to undergo treatment and isolation.
He said these regulations were meant for individual cases and were not tailored for a pandemic which is why the rules required an amendment.
Phillip van Staden from the VF+ said people do not understand why further restrictions are necessary.
A study conducted by public health expert Prof Shabir Madhi also underscored that the regulations that were in place during the state of disaster failed to prevent infection.
Madhi’s research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that an estimated 85% of people living in Gauteng had Covid-19 at one time before the outbreak of the Omicron wave in late 2021.
Madhi found that South Africans had extensive immunity against severe Covid-19 disease and death prior to the fourth wave that was triggered by the Omicron variant, due to high infections in the first three waves and vaccination.
The study was conducted among people in Gauteng, where a quarter of South Africans — about 15.5 million — live. It showed that three in four people had been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus at least once since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and before the Omicron wave in South Africa in November 2021.
- The regulations include measures that will allow for the forced isolation of symptomatic patients who refuse treatment and admission at a health facility, including a provision that they can be held for 48 hours at such a facility before a warrant is obtained to extend their isolation period.
- The regulations contain a new form that can be used by magistrates to order people into isolation, and which includes an order allowing for the taking of samples from the person’s body.
- Doctors, nurses and people that have been delegated by doctors to do so and the police will be able to order someone to isolate. Asymptomatic people who have tested positive for Covid-19 will no longer be required to isolate themselves.
- Symptomatic people are still required to isolate themselves for seven days.
Phaahla also said on Thursday (14 March) that there are directives about self-isolation for both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases. These are however clashing with the draft regulations.
Earlier in January, a group of eminent public health experts called on the government to implement extensive changes to the way the Covid-19 pandemic was being managed saying that there was no reason anymore for the restrictive rules that were in place during the pandemic.
The suggestions were offered by a group of public health experts and doctors, namely: Francois Venter, Ezintsha divisional director, Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University; Marc Mendelson, Head of Infectious Diseases and HIV, University of Cape Town; Jeremy Nel, Head of Department, Infectious Diseases, Wits University; Lucille Blumberg, Right To Care and University of Stellenbosch; Zameer Brey, health systems adviser and Groote Schuur Hospital board member and Shabir Madhi, Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology, University of the Witwatersrand.
They suggested that the government should end the state of disaster as “our current understanding of the science, the building of immunity protecting against severe Covid-19, and experience with policy renders most state of disaster measures still in place unfit for purpose and requires tailoring of others”.
Another member of the Portfolio Committee on Health, Michele Clarke of the DA said the current draft regulations seemed like they were copied and pasted from the state of disaster regulations.
Haseena Ismail, also from the DA, highlighted that the new regulations had the potential to infringe on people’s religious rights as it will impact on prayers and the washing of bodies after someone passed away.
She said the restrictions that were in place during the state of disaster left many with painful memories.
Marie Sukers from the African Christian Democratic Party said the levels of abnormality that will be sustained by the new regulations were not sustainable either on a social level or from a legal perspective.
Naledi Chirwa from the Economic Freedom Fighters said the regulations allowing for self-isolation if a person can sleep alone in a bedroom with its own bathroom and have access to disposable utensils was not possible in many parts of the country.
Munzoor Shaik-Emam from the National Freedom Party said in many parts of the country people didn’t even have food to eat and yet the regulations require disposable utensils as a condition for self-isolation.
The chair of the Health Portfolio Committee Kenneth Jacobs said the regulations were extremely important to fill the gaps.
The new Whatsapp number that can be used to comment on the draft regulations is 060 012 3456. DM/MC