South Africa has lifted a nightime curfew on people’s movement with immediate effect, believing the country has passed the peak of its fourth coronavirus wave driven by the Omicron variant.
As the head of the World Health Organization sounded an optimistic note about beating the pandemic in 2022, the government in Pretoria removed the midnight-to-4am curfew based on the trajectory of the pandemic, vaccination levels and available capacity in the health sector, the government said on Thursday.
“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” a statement from a special cabinet meeting held earlier on Thursday said.
“While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalisation than in previous waves,” the cabinet statement said.
Data from South Africa’s health department showed a 29.7% weekly decrease in new cases detected in the week ending 25 December, the government said. Hospital admissions have declined in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces.
South Africa, with close to 3.5 million infections and 91,000 deaths, has been the worst-hit country in Africa during the pandemic on both counts, and was where the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was first detected last month.
The country is at the lowest of its five-stage Covid-19 alert levels.
Besides lifting the restrictions on public movement, the government also ruled that alcohol shops with licences to operate beyond 11pm may revert back to full licence conditions, a welcome boon for traders and businesses hard hit by the pandemic and looking to recover during the festive season.
However, public gatherings are restricted to no more than 1,000 people indoors, and no more than 2,000 people outdoors. Wearing of masks in public places also remains mandatory, with breaches considered a criminal offence.
The more optimistic note after two years of the global pandemic was echoed by the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said on Linkedin that the world had the “tools to end this calamity”.
“After two years, we now know this virus well,” he wrote. “We know the proven measures to control transmission: mask use, avoiding crowds, maintaining physical distancing, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene, opening windows for ventilation, testing and contact tracing. We know how to treat the disease it causes and improve the chances of survival for people suffering serious illness. With all these learnings and capacities, the opportunity to turn this pandemic around for good is in our grasp.”
In Israel a fourth vaccine shot for vulnerable people has been approved, becoming one of the first countries to do so, amid a surge in Covid in cases driven by the Omicron variant.
Health ministry director general Nachman Ash said: “I did this in light of studies that show the benefit of the vaccine, including the fourth vaccine, to this population, and in light of the fear they are more vulnerable in this outbreak of Omicron.”
Israeli health authorities reported more than 4,000 new cases on Thursday, a high not seen since September. Health minister Nitzan Horowitz said Israel was in “a fifth wave”, with most cases probably related to Omicron.
Prime minister Naftali Bennett said Israel, which was among the first countries in the world to offer a booster shot to the public, would “lead the way” in offering a fourth jab. Booster shots have been administered to 4.2 million people out of a population of 9.4m Israelis.
Last week Chile announced it would offer a fourth shot to at-risk people beginning in February. Health authorities in the United Kingdom and Germany have also said they are considering fourth doses.
Also on Thursday, an Israeli El Al flight from Belgium landed in Tel Aviv carrying a shipment of Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill, Paxlovid, which Bennett hailed as an “important addition to the arsenal in the war against the pandemic”.
“Thanks to our rapid action, the drugs have arrived in Israel quickly and will assist us in getting past the peak of the coming Omicron wave,” he said.
Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on Covid-19, said the Pfizer drugs could “dramatically reduce risk of severe illness, potentially thus also reducing the overall hospital burden”. He said the medications were critical, “in addition to vaccines and masks”.
In trials, the treatment has been shown to reduce Covid hospitalisations and deaths by 88% among at-risk people. The oral treatments block the virus’ ability to replicate and should withstand variants, experts say.
The US has paid $5.3 billion for 10m courses of Pfizer’s new treatment, as well as $2.2bn for treatment from rival Merck, whose pill appears to be less effective.
The European Union’s drug regulator has also allowed member states to use Pfizer’s Covid medications ahead of formal approval as an emergency measure.
Ash approved the booster after Israel’s Sheba Medical Centre launched a clinical trial Monday, giving 150 staff members a fourth jab to test the benefit of a wider national rollout of additional doses.
He also announced new health regulations, requiring people to wear masks at outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people.
Israeli health authorities have shied away from sweeping social distancing guidelines and lockdowns seen in the earlier days of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the United States set a new global record for daily infections after reporting 488,000 cases as the Omicron variant spreads across the country, according to a New York Times database. However, even that figure is likely a serious undercount of the true numbers of positive cases, due to the rising popularity of home tests and people who are infected but asymptomatic.
New Year’s Eve gatherings curtailed
A New Year shorn of mass celebrations beckons for millions around the world as the number of daily new Covid cases worldwide crossed one million for the first time, according to an AFP tally on Thursday, with more than 7.3 million in the past seven days.
From Greece to Mexico, from Barcelona to Bali and across swathes of Europe, authorities have cancelled or curtailed public gatherings, either closing or imposing curfews on nightclubs. Only South Africa, the first country to report the Omicron variant, was bucking the trend.
In France, wearing masks outdoors will be compulsory while walking the streets of Paris from Friday for everyone over the age of 11. Nightclubs have been closed until well into January.
In Spain, public festivities have been cancelled across most regions and in the biggest cities except Madrid, where a stripped-down gathering is scheduled with the crowd limited to 7,000 people compared with 18,000 in 2019.
Britain’s National Health Service said it would start opening temporary field hospitals to contain a possible overspill of patients in England, where the government stopped short of mandating curbs on New Year festivities. “Given the high level of Covid-19 infections and increasing hospital admissions, the NHS is now on a war footing,” national medical director Stephen Powis said.
Indonesia, which has reported more than 4.2 million cases, warned that foreign travellers may be deported from the resort island of Bali if caught violating Covid rules that bar carnivals, fireworks and gatherings of more than 50 people. “Get ready to be kicked out,” said Bali immigration office head Jamaruli Manihuruk.
Mexico City has cancelled its massive New Year’s Eve celebrations as a preventative measure after a rise in cases.