Scientists advised government to impose partial booze ban

Police confiscating alcohol at one of the lockdown roadblocks in Johannesburg./ Alaister Russell
Police confiscating alcohol at one of the lockdown roadblocks in Johannesburg./ Alaister Russell

Top scientists advised the government to impose stricter measures to curb alcohol abuse before an outright ban.

This was revealed in parliament yesterday when the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) presented a report used to brief health minister Zweli Mkhize's advisory committee.

Presenting the report, Dr Charles Parry, who is part of the SAMRC unit focusing on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, raised the issue of imposing stricter measures before an outright ban.

"Strategically, we did push that it might be useful to consider adopting the lesser approach of this basket of intervention initially, and seeing how it goes for a few weeks before going ahead with the ban, if required, to prevent a push-back from the public and the liquor industry and associated businesses.

"It might also make it easier to defend legal challenges because then the government could say they initiated less intrusive strategies first."

Parry said they had been tasked by a sub-committee of the ministerial advisory team to conduct the research on Monday last week before the ban announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday.

The SAMRC report is titled "Impact of Alcohol on Health Services in South Africa", and it shows a huge increase in admissions to hospital trauma units since the lifting of the alcohol ban last month. It was meant to look at the effect of an alcohol ban under level 3.

"The questions we were asked by the committee were effectively: what would be the effect of reimposing a ban on liquor sales during level 3 on trauma-related hospital visits and admission; and what would be the effect of placing tighter restrictions on alcohol access as opposed to a ban on liquor sales, in terms of reducing the burden on the public healthcare system and trauma admissions? That was the one we added because we felt we also needed to look at that."

Parry said the report was later taken to the national coronavirus command council and discussed last Thursday.

It showed of 34,000 trauma incidents presented in hospitals across the country, 50% were alcohol-related. Parry said with the ban, they were expecting a 20% drop in cases for the first week but after four weeks, a maximum drop of 40%.

Parry also presented measures that should have been put in place at level 3 of the lockdown which would have decreased the number of alcohol-related trauma cases. He said, however, there was a feeling they were more challenging to implement than a ban.

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