Last week sweeping changes were made to many of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions in the country, with one notable exception: places of work.
Since then, anyone without symptoms can effectively live life as normal with no testing or isolation requirements, even after a positive test. Schools are back to normal with no social distancing requirements. Government has said these relaxations are justified because up to 80% of South Africans have some immunity, either from previous infections or vaccination.
These relaxations are important to allow our kids to get back to normal schooling which will be vital to their futures.
But I was left scratching my head at why government hadn’t similarly relaxed requirements for places of work. I called for that to be done in this newsletter two weeks ago – clearly those calls fell on deaf ears. Is it not important that our businesses are able to resume normal operations? Is the scale of unemployment we face not so immense that we should be doing everything possible for companies to resume operations at maximum efficiency, free to have people on the premises or not as business requirements dictate?
Businesses are still, on paper, required to do many things that are now clearly unnecessary. There are needless routines like maintaining registers of everyone on premises (who ever looks at these?) and routinely deep cleaning premises at great expense (despite there now being scientific consensus that surface transmission of Covid-19 practically never happens). Businesses are still notionally required to minimise the number of people at work through rotation and staggered hours and those with over 50 employees must provide reports to the Department of Health about vulnerable employees and those identified as high risk at catching the virus.
Does anyone ever look at these? Employers are still required to ensure social distancing of 1.5m or put in place physical barriers between employees and to work with a mask even when distanced. They are also required to screen for symptoms every time an employee arrives at work. There are also opportunistic employees who use the regulations as the basis to refuse to work on the grounds of having been exposed to Covid-19. Given the high levels of immunity that have allowed schools to return to normal, is this really an appropriate approach to returning to work?
South Africa is becoming an outlier in workplace regulations. The UK has now dropped all regulations in workplaces, with people no longer advised to work from home, social distance or wear masks indoors. Denmark is the first European Union country to lift all Covid restrictions, but Italy, Switzerland and Finland are following. Certainly, these countries have far higher vaccination rates than we have yet achieved but given our high level of immunity is South Africa any less prepared? Also, given that employers can drive vaccination levels among employees, lifting restrictions and allowing people to fully return to work could well spur vaccination levels, particularly if employers impose vaccine mandates.
We are clearly through the Omicron wave. Positive tests and hospital admissions are far down from the peak in December. The hospitalisation rate was below the previous two waves and only slightly higher than the first wave. Deaths were far fewer than all previous waves, despite there being record numbers of infections. This clearly indicates the disease does not have the clinical impact it did in earlier waves. All these indicators have been on a sharply downward trend so far in 2022.
Our unemployment crisis and desperate need for economic growth make it unacceptable to delay loosening restrictions any longer than necessary. I am deeply concerned that the failure of the government to relax workplace restrictions in line with the relaxations in other spheres of our lives, based on the same evidence, reflects that the economy simply isn’t paid due attention. Employers should in all circumstances ensure that their employees are able to work safely, but many of the Covid-19 measures they are currently compelled to do is a pointless cost to them. Plus, they are unable to get back to full operation with a full staff complement which certainly harms employment levels.
I will be asking hard questions of the Department of Labour and the Cabinet on why they have not taken more decisive action to free up workplace restrictions. If there are good reasons, so be it. But it is unacceptable if the real reasons are simply inertia, or an “anti-business” ideology. We need government to be actively considering the evidence and apply a risk-weighted view on the costs and benefits of the regulations as they stand. Any relaxation does not need to be permanent – regulations can always be reintroduced should infection rates and clinical impact change.
Busi Mavuso is CEO of Business Leadership South Africa