News in South Africa 14th December:
1. Omicron hospitalisations low:
South Africa has recorded another 13,992 positive COVID-19 cases ahead of Acting President David Mabuza’s meeting with the National Coronavirus Command Council on Tuesday.
More than 6,000 of the infections recorded in the last 24 hours were in Gauteng, which remains the province with the highest number of positive cases.
Eleven deaths have also been added to the national statistics which means the country has now registered 90,148 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.
But as the COVID-19 infection rate picks up around the country, hospitals said they were still not seeing a high number of admissions like in previous waves.
Officials, however, warned it may still be too early to tell if this trend will continue over the next few weeks.
Western Cape Health officials were closely monitoring the data and assured the public they would be kept up to speed with any developments.
As of 3pm on Sunday, the number of COVID-19 hospitalisations across private and public hospitals were at 439 with a total of 45 patients admitted to ICU and high care.
There has been a spike in hospitalisations, but health experts and analysts say this is not surprising or unexpected, as this coincides with the rapid increase in infections.
The key difference is the proportion of hospital visits, which is much lower. Authorities say that vaccines have proven to be the differentiator this time around, with the jab widely available and most hospital admissions being those who are unvaccinated.
2. Scientists still studying omicron:
While it is accepted that coronaviruses are partially transmitted through droplets, but can also be airborne, scientists need to do more research to find out whether this differs with the Omicron variant.
It is too early to tell if the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is transmitted differently from the ones that came before it, Professor Cheryl Cohen, co-head of the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said last week.
“People are definitely in too much of a hurry. Even preliminary data that are being released need discussion, review and critical assessment. If we allow for this time and exchange, we will slowly get to some of the answers,” she said.
There has been much speculation about the transmission of Omicron since an article appeared in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, stating that a traveller from Hong Kong, one of the first to be identified as having been infected with the Omicron variant, appeared to have transmitted the virus to a fully vaccinated traveller staying in a room across the corridor — suggesting transmission despite strict quarantine precautions.
“It is too early to know the physical viral characteristic differences between Omicron compared to other variants. Based on existing evidence, SARS-CoV-2 is thought to be transmitted both by the droplet and airborne route.
“The scientists need time to perform experiments that compare the different variants to see if transmission of Omicron differs. Because asymptomatic people can spread Covid-19 it is often not possible to be certain of how any specific individual acquired infection,” Cohen said.
She said it was possible that the coronavirus could be spread through air conditioners.
“The safety of air travel and other activities depend on adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent spread as well as airflow on specific aircraft. There is currently no data on whether the mode of transmission of Omicron differs or to suggest that air travel is less safe.
“Exactly what may be giving Omicron an advantage still needs to be studied,” she added.
In a technical briefing issued on Friday by the UK, scientists found a higher risk of transmission to contacts from an Omicron index case than in Delta index cases.
Studies were not adjusted for vaccination.
Known as the “household secondary attack rate”, the risk of getting infected within a household by Omicron, estimated at 21.6%, was twice as high as that of Delta, estimated at 10.7%.
A recent UK study tracking transmission of the coronavirus within households showed that transmission was significantly — between 40% and 50% — reduced by vaccination, even if the person had received a first dose of a vaccine only three weeks earlier. There was also an impact for vaccines given at least 14 days before someone in the household had tested positive.
3. UK red list ending?:
The UK is poised to announce as soon as Tuesday the removal of all 11 countries from its so-called Covid-19 red list, ending mandatory hotel quarantine for travellers arriving from the riskiest countries.
Ministers believe the move is logical given the number of omicron cases in the UK are doubling every two to three days, a person familiar with the matter said. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new variant would account for the majority of cases in London by Tuesday.
South Africa and nine other nations were placed on the red list last month, followed by Nigeria last week. It means Britons already in those countries must quarantine in designated hotels for 10 days on their return to the UK – at a cost of 2,285 pounds ($3,030) per person or 3,715 pounds per couple.
It also means that people in red-list nations who don’t have UK residency rights are banned from coming to Britain. The change in policy is expected to end that ban, with all arrivals from those countries likely to be told to isolate at their own accommodation rather than in government-approved hotels.
Johnson told a Downing Street press conference last week the government would review travel restrictions “given the way omicron’s now seeded around the world, and not just in red-listed countries.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid also hinted at the move last week, telling Parliament: “Very soon, in the days and weeks that lie ahead, if, as I think is likely, we see many more infections and this variant becomes the dominant variant, there will be less need to have any kind of travel restrictions at all.”
4. Minimal fuel price decrease:
South Africans will not see fuel prices decrease on the same scale as the increases experienced in recent months, even following a fuel price review.
This is according to Layton Beard, spokesperson for the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA), who indicated that South Africans would at least get clarity on fuel prices if a review takes place.
Finance minister Enoch Godongwana called for changes to how the fuel price is calculated following the significant fuel increase in December.
Regulated fuel prices have increased by more than 40% during 2021.
The increase in fuel costs is of concern to Godongwana, “to the extent that we may have to play a role, to do whatever we can, to support the reform of the fuel price,” he told lawmakers on Friday 10 December.
“At this point in time, a big part of the price increases is the levy,” he said.
“The way of countering price increases is an urgent matter for review, and that is on the table.”
Beard indicated that this is good as South Africans would then at least get some clarity on the components that comprise the fuel price.
“One of the things we said that needed to happen very urgently was a review of the fuel price to determine exactly whether all the components that are part of the fuel price are necessary and still appropriate for South Africa, are calculated correctly, and are audited correctly,” Beard told SABC News.
“We will then be able to determine, through that process, whether there was anything that we could take off that fuel price to bring it down.”
Beard also explained the major levies contributing to South Africa’s exorbitant fuel prices.
“In South Africa, we have two very big levies, the general fuel levy which is pegged at R3.93 a litre, and the Road Accident Fund levy, which is pegged at R2.18 a litre,” Beard said.
“Together, those two levies comprise R6.11 of every litre of petrol, and that’s a cause of concern.”
These two levies have increased steadily since the end of 2011, at which point the general petrol and Road Accident Fund (RAF) levies were R1.78 and R0.80, respectively.
5. Eskom denied excess polluting rights:
Eskom has been denied a formal request that its Matimba and Medupi power stations be allowed to pollute far above legal limits.
Now, it says, it is worried about its ability to keep the lights on.
The utility had applied for specific exemptions from minimum air quality standards for its 34-year old Matimba power station and, more notably, for the giant new Medupi.
Medupi had been due to feature air scrubbers to remove sulphur dioxide output so high that it will, by one estimate, kill 900 people per year. Eskom now says the necessary flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) will not be in place until 2030, and even after that, Medupi will never be economically capable of complying with its sulphur dioxide limits.
Eskom’s efforts to change those limits for its power stations, rather than reduce their pollution output, have now failed.
Eskom has “made minimal effort” to comply with South Africa’s minimum emission standards since 2010, the National Air Quality Officer Thuli Khumalo told the company in a pointed letter refusing its application, released on Monday by Eskom’s environmental consultants.
That general failure is among the reasons she did not have the legal authority to grant the exemptions Eskom had sought, Khumalo said.
Eskom said in response that it believes that decision has “a very significant impact on Eskom’s ability to provide electricity nationally, the economy, and the country’s plans in terms of a just energy transition.”
It now hopes to speak to the government departments responsible for energy, state-owned enterprises, and the environment, “in respect of the way forward.”
In October, Eskom was named the biggest sulphur dioxide polluter on the planet, after a half-decade during which the likes of China, the USA, and the European Union dramatically reduced their output of the gas. They did so in part by retrofitting coal-fired power stations for desulphurisation.
Doing the same for Matimba would cost at least R15 billion, Eskom has said.
But it would need considerably more than that combined R55 billion – in the order of hundreds of billions more – to fully comply with South Africa’s emissions standards, Eskom says.