The government has rejected a demand to ease the ban on alcohol sales during lockdown, saying there is a proven link between alcohol and full emergency rooms; and the hospitals need to be prepared for Covid-19 patients.

The letter, from state attorney Arista Wasserman on behalf of President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday, was responding to a letter of demand by the Gauteng Liquor Forum — representing more than 20 000 micro and small businesses in Gauteng. The forum said their members’ economic livelihood was at risk, now that the lockdown had been extended. They demanded an easing of the ban, and threatened legal action.

But after meeting this week to “further consider the economic implications of the continued lockdown”, the president, Cabinet and the National Command Council decided to uphold the restrictions, said the letter.

Factors that were considered included that the sale and consumption of alcohol had “proven links to an increase in violent crime, motor vehicle accidents, medical emergencies and results in full emergency rooms and hospitals”. 

The letter added that: “In the face of a pandemic such as Covid-19, the experience of the rest of the world has shown us that hospitals need to be prepared to receive and treat vast numbers of Covid-19 patients and to quarantine them from non-infected patients.”

The ban was also aimed at ensuring compliance with the lockdown regulations, social distancing protocols and proper hygiene practices — “in light of experience of non-compliance by intoxicated persons in general”, said Wasserman. 

Her letter specifically denied that the ban breached any constitutional rights, but was sympathetic about the economic effects the lockdown was having. However, these were not only felt by alcohol sellers — “but by all industries [that] have been forced to close down for the duration of the lockdown”, said Wasserman. 

“This is a regrettable, but inevitable, consequence of a lockdown.”

Wasserman referred the forum to the mechanisms that had been put in place to alleviate these hardships, particularly to small businesses. In earlier correspondence, the forum’s lawyers, Mabuza Attorneys, had said that the vast majority of their clients had “always been declared unfit to qualify for government assistance in the past 25 years for various reasons, including the refusal to dismantle the apartheid stigma, the nature of their trade, size, the informal or largely unregistered nature thereof, et cetera”.

“It is, therefore, incomprehensible and, at best, highly unlikely that the present emergency relief will be different. In fact, judging by the announced qualifying criteria, the vast majority of our clients will certainly not benefit from such initiatives,” said the letter from Mabuza attorneys.

Wasserman’s letter invited the forum “to provide us with the registration details of all your clients’ businesses so that we may attempt to assist them with determining what assistance they qualify for, and assisting them where possible with applying for the appropriate funding.”