The alcohol industry has welcomed the call by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) for government to start preparing for the lifting of the ban on the sale of alcohol.
The decision recognises that there was no immediate severe pressure on hospital beds set aside for the treatment of Covid-19 patients.
The call was made by SAMRC president Dr Glenda Gray and Professor Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Research Unit of the SAMRC during an interview with Michael Avery of Business Day TV on Friday.
Gray and Parry acknowledged that the anticipated excessive pressure on hospitals as a result of a surge in Covid-19 infection was not materialising.
Last week, Gauteng Premier David Makhura reported a 57% occupation rate, with 5 500 patients using the 9 576 public hospital beds available. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde reported a 71% occupancy of the hospital beds available in the Cape Town Metro. The province’s infections appear to have peaked.
Parry was asked if the decision to ban alcohol sales to free up hospital beds was ill-advised – given the impact the ban has on jobs and excise tax collection – while not hitting the maximum use of those beds.
“We now need to start looking at planning for lifting of the temporary ban on alcohol sales. And we need to look at what measures, so that we can perhaps start planning for them in a few weeks’ time, maybe even talking about lifting the ban on alcohol sales, particularly if you say that around the country there is not so much pressure around the hospital beds,” Parry said.
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He further stated the need to also consider staff capacity needed to manage Covid-19 patients.
Prohibition has ‘devastating effect’
Gray, also a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee advising Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on South Africa’s Covid-19 response, said: “My recommendation to government is to be nimble… We have achieved the impact by having a curfew and prohibition on alcohol. We have achieved what we needed. Now we need to address other issues. We have achieved the lives, now we need to look at livelihoods.”
The prohibition of alcohol sales is having a devastating effect, with more than 100 000 of the almost one million jobs supported by the alcohol industry value chain having been lost in the first phase of the ban at lockdown level 5 and 4.
“Nineteen days since that economically devastating decision to ban alcohol with immediate effect, the SAMRC is advising government differently. If the government is to be consistent in its approach to the ban, it needs to urgently open talks for the orderly reopening of alcohol trade to prevent further losses of jobs and revenue for both the state and business,” said Sibani Mngadi, a spokesperson for the alcohol industry.
More than R19 billion in revenue and R3.4 billion in excise tax to government was lost during the first phase of the ban on alcohol sales. Furthermore, the industry has requested the Ministry of Finance to defer the payment of a further R5 billion currently due to the South African Revenue Services until the ban on alcohol sales has been lifted.