South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa pushes forward crucial COVID-19 meeting as global concern over Omicron spikes

The meeting, which was originally scheduled for Sunday, comes as a growing number of European countries are following the UK’s lead in banning travel to and from South Africa and neighboring countries.

File image of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. PA

Johannesburg: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has advanced an urgent meeting with the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to Saturday, amid growing global concern over the potentially more contagious new variant of Omicron, which was first detected times in the country. The meeting was originally scheduled for Sunday.

The meeting comes as a growing number of European countries are following the UK’s lead in banning travel to and from South Africa and neighboring countries Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well than Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), both of which are landlocked in South Africa.

The latest to impose the ban are Mauritius, the United States, Israel, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.

Speculation is rife that Ramaphosa will announce a stricter lockdown and other measures to curb the spread of the new variant.

The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected in South Africa this week, was designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday, which named it Omicron.

A variant of concern is the WHO’s first category of COVID-19 variants of concern.

It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24 and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

In the past, an NCCC meeting was always followed by a national Ramaphosa broadcast to announce changes to South Africa’s five-tier lockdown strategy, which is currently at the lowest tier one.

The outcome of this meeting will indicate whether further consultations are needed at the level of the President’s Coordination Council, Minister for the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said in a statement.

The National Coronavirus Command Council is one of many government structures that include the Coordinating Council and the Office of the President where scientific evidence and submissions from different economic and social sectors inform executive decision-making, adds the press release.

The government is working closely with the social partners to ensure that a balance is maintained between protecting and saving lives, enabling people to earn a living and enabling the wider economy to recover and grow, a- he declared.

At an urgently called press conference on Thursday, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla expressed concern about the rapid increase in COVID-19 infections over the past week, particularly in the economic center of Gauteng Province.

This variant has a very high number of mutations, which is of concern for its predicted immune evasion and transmissibility, said Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform ( KRISP), during the briefing.

Early signs from diagnostic labs suggest the variant has spread rapidly in Gauteng province and could also be present in most of South Africa’s other eight provinces, De Oliveira added.

Analysts said the predicted fourth wave came earlier than expected in December because the government allowed large gatherings in October ahead of local government elections nationwide on November 1.

This had resulted in large gatherings where people sometimes exceeded the prescribed maximum quota of 2,000 and failed to meet social distancing and mask-wearing requirements.

Virologists had spoken out on the matter at the time, warning that allowing such large gatherings could lead to a strict lockdown by December.

There has also been widespread reluctance to vaccinate in South Africa, including some political parties leading an agitation against vaccinations, despite intensive government efforts to provide them free of charge, even in religious institutions.

Teresa H. Sadler