Lions arrive in South Africa despite raging third wave of coronavirus

Crisis particularly severe in Gauteng province – where tourists are set to stay for the next two weeks

Bundee Aki has his temperature checked on arrival with the Lions party in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Bundee Aki has his temperature checked on arrival with the Lions party in South Africa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho


South Africa’s government has confirmed that the incoming British and Irish Lions rugby tour has not been derailed by the introduction of tighter restrictions to tackle a third wave of coronavirus raging across the country.

As the Lions rugby players and management buckled in for their long-haul flight from Edinburgh to the southern end of Africa on Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation that stricter controls were necessary from Monday to tackle the spiralling infection rate.

As of Sunday, South Africa had recorded 15,036 new Covid-19 cases and 122 more deaths, bringing the country’s death toll to 59,900.

The health crisis is particularly severe in Gauteng province, where the tourists are scheduled to stay for the next two weeks.

The densely populated region accounts for more than 60 per cent of new Covid-19 cases in the country and is now considered the epicentre of the outbreak by the health authorities.

In his live television address, Ramaphosa said the nation would move to level four of the government’s five-stage lockdown strategy for the next 14 days to try and slow the spread of the disease, and ease the pressure on hospitals struggling to facilitate the growing patient numbers.

“We are in the grip of a devastating wave that by all indications seems like it will be worse than those that preceded it,” he explained. The peak of this third wave looks set to be higher than the previous two”.

The need to act, he said, was informed by scientific advice, following the announcement on Saturday that the highly contagious Delta variant first identified in India was driving the latest wave of Covid-19.

It has been identified in five of the country’s nine provinces, including Gauteng and the Western Cape, where the rugby tour’s eight matches are scheduled to take place over the next six weeks.

According to local scientists the Delta variant is between 30 per cent and 60 per cent more transmissible than the Beta variant that dominated South Africa’s second wave of Covid-19 in December and January.

Under the level four restrictions, all gatherings – political, social, or cultural – are prohibited and the sale of alcohol has been banned to try and free-up much needed hospital beds in Gauteng.

Medical professionals working in the province, which is the country’s economic heartland, have warned there are few hospital beds left to take in Covid-19 patients, and there is a drastic shortage of staff at all medical facilities to care for the sick.

Slow pace

The situation has been exacerbated by the closure of the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, one of Johannesburg’s biggest, which was badly damaged in a fire that broke out in April.

In addition, the government has also brought forward the ongoing curfew by an hour – to run from 9pm to 4am – and restaurants can now only serve food for take-away or delivery.

All leisure travel into and out of Gauteng has also been halted, but it is allowed to continue between the other provinces.

Ramaphosa said the ban does not include work, business or commercial travel, transit through airports or for the transport of goods.

“If you are currently not in your place of residence, you will be allowed to return home to or from Gauteng,” he said.

The slow pace of South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination drive is also contributing to the severity of the third wave, with only 2.5 million people out of a population of nearly 60 million getting a jab since inoculations began in mid-February.

President Ramaphosa said on Sunday that the recent arrival of a new batch of Johnson and Johnson doses will enable the national Covid-19 vaccination programme to speed up over the coming weeks.

South Africa’s sixth president failed to address sporting events in his weekend address, and some observers suggested this could mean the tour was under threat, given three of the Springboks squad had also tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday.

But on Monday the government gazette outlined that all professional sport was still allowed to continue, although under strict safety conditions.

According to Tim Percival, the British and Irish Lions’ head of communications, the tourists from the northern hemisphere will emerge into a bio-security bubble upon their arrival at Johannesburg International Airport on Monday morning.

The security protocols they will have to adhere to include regular Covid-19 testing for the touring party’s members, mask-wearing and social distancing where possible.

“We are all staying in single rooms at the hotels and having seating maps on the buses when travelling anywhere,” he told The Irish Times.

The tourists are currently scheduled to train at St Peter’s College, a private school in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s wealthiest areas, ahead of the opening game of the tour against the Emirates Lions team on July 3rd.

Three games

The first three games of the tour are scheduled to take place in Johannesburg and Pretoria, Gauteng’s other major city, before moving to Cape Town to prepare for a match against a South African A side and the DHL stormers, ahead of the first Test on July 24th.

However, the online media outlet, the Daily Maverick, reported on Sunday that talks were already under way for most of the rugby tour to be relocated to the Western Cape.

Although the province is currently less affected by Covid-19 than Gauteng, scientists say it is only a matter of time before the crisis unfolding in the former region spreads to the rest of the country.

South African residents who spoke to The Irish Times in recent days were for the most part very happy that the Lions tour was still going ahead, saying the Test series would give the country a much-needed lift even if the games proceed without fans in the stadia.

Dr William Mapham said South Africa had already shown it could safely play international sport during the pandemic when Cricket South Africa successfully hosted Sri Lankan men and women’s teams in bio secure environments over the Christmas holiday period.

“But in terms of spectators, having a crowded event during the peak of our third wave is not advisable from a health perspective as our hospitals are already running at full capacity,” he said.

South African Tourism has also said in recent months that it wants the tour to go ahead even without spectators at the games, as the body aims to showcase the country to the watching world as part of its efforts to entice foreign tourists when the pandemic has subsided.

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