Scientists say it’s time to think about lifting the booze ban to save jobs

Experts at the SAMRC believe that in light of the jobs crisis, and relatively low stress on availability of hospital beds in most provinces, it is time the government considered moves to drop the ban on the sale of alcohol.
Image: 123RF/Vladislavs Gorniks

SA’s alcohol industry has welcomed a call by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) for the government to start planning to lift the ban on alcohol sales.

SAMRC president Dr Glenda Gray and Prof Charles Parry, director of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs research unit at the council, told Michael Avery of Business Day TV that the ban, and night time curfew, were “interim” measures to free up space in hospitals for Covid-19 patients.

“We need to be nimble. We have seen the impact that the curfew and alcohol ban have [had] … So I would recommend now that we do have hospital space … we need to respond appropriately so we can manage both lives and livelihoods,” said Gray in the interview on Friday. Gray is a member of the ministerial advisory council advising health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on the government’s Covid-19 response.

Gauteng premier David Makhura last week reported a 57% occupation rate with 5,500 patients using the 9,576 public hospital beds available in the province. Western Cape premier Alan Winde reported a 71% occupancy rate of hospital beds in Cape Town.

Parry was asked during the interview if the outright ban on alcohol sales was not ill-advised, given the lower bed occupancy rates, its impact on jobs and excise tax collection.

“With hindsight I don’t think so. We certainly needed those beds at the time,” he said. But he added, “I think we now need to start looking at planning for lifting the temporary ban on alcohol sales … so that we can perhaps start planning for them, in a few weeks’ time maybe even talk about lifting the ban on alcohol sales.”

The alcohol industry said in a statement that more than 100,000 of nearly a million jobs supported by the industry value chain were lost in the first phase of the ban at lockdown levels 5 and 4.

“Nineteen days since that economically devastating decision [by President Cyril Ramaphosa] to ban alcohol with immediate effect, the SAMRC is advising government differently. If the government is to be consistent in its approach to the ban, it needs to urgently open talks for the orderly reopening of alcohol trade to prevent further losses of jobs and revenue for both the state and business,” said Sibani Mngadi, spokesperson for the alcohol industry.

The industry includes the National Liquor Traders Council, South African Liquor Brand owners Association (SALBA), the Beer Association of SA (Basa), Vinpro, the National Liquor Traders Council, and manufacturers.

The industry said more than R19bn in revenue and R3.4bn in excise tax to government was lost during the first phase of the ban of alcohol sales. The industry has requested the finance ministry to defer the payment of a further R5bn due to the SA Revenue Service until the ban on alcohol sales has been lifted.

Distell CEO Richard Rushton said in a statement on Monday, “We have to ask whether an outright ban on alcohol sales can be justified when the damage outweighs the benefits and there are smarter ways to achieve the same objectives …

“The long-term damage will be immense — wine farms, restaurants, glass-container manufacturers and taverners are all bleeding and many will not survive. We’re facing a structural decline in output capacity in an industry that supports almost a million livelihoods and accounted for 3% of SA’s GDP in 2019,” said Rushton.

“I fear the impact this will have on the prospects of an economic recovery for SA, but more importantly, the ability of people who lose their jobs to feed their families.”


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