South Africa has repealed COVID-19 rules that made masks mandatory in indoor public spaces, limited the size of gatherings and imposed entry requirements at its borders, the health minister said on Thursday.
The country has recorded the most coronavirus cases and deaths in Africa, with more than 3.9 million confirmed infections and upwards of 101,000 deaths.
But health minister Joe Phaahla said on Thursday that authorities had noted a decline in cases, hospitalisations and reported deaths and concluded that a limited fifth wave was dissipating.
“The COVID-19 virus is not yet gone, … we are just stronger than before especially with vaccination,” he told a news conference, urging those eligible for boosters and not yet vaccinated to come forward.
South Africa’s vaccination campaign initially struggled because of limited supplies and protracted negotiations with manufacturers but more recently it has been dogged by hesitancy.
About half of the country’s 40 million adults have received at least one vaccine dose, with 46% fully vaccinated.
Phaahla said managers of places, such as restaurants, hotels and schools could still require masks on their premises but it was no longer government policy.
If vaccine uptake did not increase significantly by November, up to 8 million doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine could be wasted, he said, adding the government was negotiating with Johnson & Johnson to try to waive future vaccine deliveries.
Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu said scrapping the requirement for travelers to show a vaccination certificate or negative COVID test would help make South Africa more accessible and help the hospitality industry.
Asked about the country’s latest steps, Africa’s top public health agency said countries were at different stages of coping with COVID-19 and advised the use of data-driven strategies.
“We also expect that the protocols will not all be the same during this stage of the pandemic,” the acting director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) Ahmed Ogwell Ouma told a briefing.
“We have encouraged them [countries] to use their own data, the evolving situation on the ground and their capacity for surveillance … to provide any adjustments.”