A guide to South Africa’s latest Covid-19 health regulations
After a late-night decision on Wednesday, the comment period for controversial new Covid-19 regulations was extended, and another set of regulations was issued to control the pandemic. But by Thursday afternoon, the Department of Health had already backtracked on one of its new rules.
Less than a week after he opposed legal action accusing him of giving too little time for communities to comment on new health regulations, Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Thursday night did an about-turn and extended the comment period, by three months, to July.
Action 4 Freedom brought the application to have the regulations scrapped on the grounds that the minister did not provide the obligatory three months for comments, but the high court dismissed their application earlier this week.
Late on Wednesday night, Phaahla appeared to hastily issue a new set of regulations to prevent, among other things, the rules about mask-wearing from falling away. But by Thursday afternoon, the department had made a backflip on one of their public statements – and cancelled it again.
The chaotic handling of the issuing of new health regulations for Covid-19 comes as South Africa sees a steady increase in cases, likely driven by Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, with positivity rates (percentage of tests that are positive) topping 20% on business days during the past week.
On Thursday evening, Sinehlanhla Jimoh from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that there had been 9,757 new Covid cases identified in South Africa. She added that this represents a 25.7% positivity rate. More than 1,500 of the new cases are people who had Covid in the past.
Last Friday, the superintendent-general of the national Department of Health, Sandile Buthelezi, assured the public that they will be able to process all comments on the new regulations and issue a final set of rules by Thursday (5 May), but this appears not to have happened.
What are the new interim rules?
These are some of the new interim regulations published on Wednesday night:
- Wear a mask covering your mouth and nose in indoor public spaces. No need to wear a mask outside.
- A mask must be worn by everyone travelling on public transport.
- A gathering is defined as an assembly or a meeting with more than 100 people.
- For any indoor and outdoor gatherings, a maximum of 50% of the venue capacity may be occupied, provided that every attendee must be vaccinated against Covid-19 and produce a valid vaccination certificate. Alternatively, attendees must produce a valid negative Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours prior to the date of the gathering. If complying with this indoor gathering requirement is not possible, then attendance shall be limited to 1,000 people or 50% of the capacity, whichever is smaller, while attendance at an outdoor gathering shall be limited to 2,000 people or 50% of the capacity, whichever is smaller.
- Hotels and other hospitality establishments are allowed to operate at 100% capacity if guests wear masks in common areas.
- All international travellers arriving at South African ports of entry must produce a valid vaccination certificate; or produce a valid negative PCR Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours before the date of departure. Alternatively, travellers have another option of producing a valid negative antigen Covid-19 test result performed by a medical practitioner, registered public health authority or accredited/approved laboratory obtained not older than 48 hours before the date of departure.
- Where an international traveller is unable to produce a vaccination certificate or a negative PCR test result not older than 72 hours, or a negative antigen test result obtained at least 48 hours prior departure, then he/she must undergo antigen testing at the port of entry.
- If a person tests positive for Covid-19 in the antigen test, the traveller will still be admitted into the country but, if the traveller is experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, they must self-isolate for a period of 10 days after admission into South Africa.
- Children and those who commute daily from neighbouring countries are exempt from the travelling rules.
- Covid-19 is named as a communicable disease – this is a highly controversial decision as many arguments against the regulations include that the nature of the illness is no longer such that it qualifies as a communicable disease. Before Thursday, it was lumped in with respiratory illness caused by pathogens.
What is not in the new interim rules?
A highly controversial restriction on funeral gatherings and provision for the forced admission of patients to a health facility if they test positive for the coronavirus but refuse treatment. Also provisions to force people to be tested for coronavirus infections and provisions for court orders to be issued for the forced isolation of patients. There is some argument that these extensive regulations could open the door for mandatory vaccinations.
What if you want to comment?
The new closing date for the submission of comments is 5 July 2022, and this extension is in line with statutory requirements and will afford the department sufficient time to go through and consider all comments and representations on the regulations.
Comments must be sent only to this email: [email protected]. The department has however not addressed a number of concerns that the digital channels for comment prohibited many, especially rural communities, from commenting.
All members of the public who submitted comments in the initial public consultation process do not need to resubmit these comments as all comments already submitted will be considered as part of this process, health spokesperson Foster Mohale explained. He has not yet answered questions about the outcome of a probe into complaints after many people who sought to comment received a message that their emails were deleted without being read.
“In order to ensure that there is no gap in terms of legal instruments to contain the spread of Covid-19 and future notifiable medical conditions, the department has gazetted the limited regulations for implementation with effect from Thursday, 05 May 2022,” Mohale explained.
“The department would like to remind people that, despite the current process to source public comments on the health regulations, there is still an imperative to provide options to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and other notifiable medical conditions without invoking the state of national disaster.
“Therefore, members of the public are reminded that Covid-19 remains a life-threatening disease, and the country is not yet out of the woods.
“The only way we can protect ourselves and our loved ones against this pandemic and the current rising number of positive cases, is through vaccination and adhering to preventative measures at all times.
“Fully vaccinated people are urged to consider booster shots to increase their immunity,” Mohale said.
By lunch on Thursday, it was time for another retraction.
Calling it a clarification, Mohale issued a statement saying: “The department would also like to bring to the public attention the confusion created by unfortunate and regrettable human error in the media statement issued yesterday about the removal of face mask wearing by children at school. This is not part of the gazetted health regulations, and is therefore retracted to avoid any misunderstanding of the regulations.
“Therefore children, like other people, are expected to continue complying with the provisions of Regulation 16A on face masks in the classrooms and general indoor gatherings, unlike outdoors in playgrounds and sports fields.
“Face masks are an effective non-pharmaceutical intervention against the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and it is more relevant now as the number of Covid-19 positive cases is rising once again,” Mohale said. DM/MC
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