CEOs newsletter 24 January 2022
POSTED ON: January 24, 2022 IN by Admin
It is time to get South Africa back to work.
Covid restrictions were last relaxed at the end of December, when gatherings of up to 1,000 were permitted indoors and the curfews abolished. Since then, the Omicron wave has firmly receded. But restrictions have not yet been relaxed for workplaces, leaving many companies unable to resume normal operations. Organised business is working on many fronts to improve health practices and provide legal certainty around vaccine mandates. But the time has come to review Covid restrictions on workplaces.
As it stands, employers must enable employees to work from home where possible. They must also ensure social distancing and mask wearing. This is despite those same employees no longer being required to take these measures as soon as they sit down for lunch.
Prevention policies must be guided by scientific evidence with due regard to the social and economic costs. The Omicron wave is clearly now receding having had a far less severe clinical impact than previous waves. The vaccination programme has had moderate success, though the numbers being vaccinated each day have unfortunately been shrinking. As it stands, 67% of the population over 60, the most vulnerable group, have been vaccinated. Over half of those over 35 have been vaccinated. The relatively mild impact of Omicron has been attributed to the high proportion of the population with some history of infection (72%), suggesting a relatively high level of natural immunity. This has allowed restrictions to be relaxed but we need to go further.
South Africa does not have the luxury of fiscal room to continue to absorb economic losses. We need economic growth to recover as fast as possible. Unemployment is the most obvious consequence of the pressure that the economy has experienced through the crisis, but government revenue has also suffered as tax collections have dwindled (with the lucky exception of the mining sector thanks to high commodity prices). The twin pressures of reduced revenue and demands for increased social support can spell disaster for government’s finances.
Many companies are now asking staff to come back to work. While the data on the productivity impact of working from home is mixed, many companies are saying that as time goes by, the costs of not having staff on premises increases, particularly when it comes to training and mentoring. Companies should be free to choose whether to require employees on site or not – if employees really are more productive working from home, we can expect companies to allow employees to do so.
We know that any increase in health risks from allowing staff to work in the office will be minimal, based on the same evidence that has allowed for restrictions to be relaxed on hospitality and gatherings. Employers can reduce it further by introducing regular testing on site. Vaccination is obviously important.
Many employers are requiring staff to be vaccinated as part of the return to the workplace. Clear guidance from government on doing so would help for this obvious risk-reducing step to become more prevalent. Social distancing requirements can be maintained if the evidence points to it being necessary as well as mask wearing in communal spaces, but it seems unnecessary to wear a mask while seated given it is not a requirement in many other contexts.
It is critically important that we get the economy firing on all cylinders. That requires many policy changes to deal with challenges of energy security, broadband availability and skills. But appropriate adjustments to Covid restrictions must also be part of the policy agenda – we cannot afford to have restrictions on business a moment longer than necessary.
In South Africa’s climate of mass poverty, empty promises of a better life (but with no explanation of how that will come about) may prove seductive. But we need to focus on sustainable and real ways to improve the system for the poor, I wrote in fin24. The only way we as a country can possibly overcome our burdens of poverty and inequality is through improved education, government efficiencies and strong, sustained economic growth, which will drive down unemployment.
This is a weekly newsletter from BLSA CEO Busi Mavuso.
BLSA is a business organisation that believes in South Africa’s future and shares the values set out in the Constitution. In 2017, BLSA signed a contract with South Africa, committing business to playing its part in creating a South Africa of increasing prosperity for all by harnessing the resources and capabilities of business in partnership with government and civil society to deliver economic growth, transformation and inclusion.
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