By Tim Cocks
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Saturday that all indications were that South Africa had reached the peak of COVID-19 infections, as he announced a sweeping removal of lockdown restrictions on the economy.
In a televised address, Ramaphosa said the government would end the ban on alcohol and tobacco, allow restaurants and taverns to return to normal business, subject to strict hygiene regulations, and remove the ban on travel between provinces.
"All indications are that South Africa has reached the peak and moved beyond the inflection point of the curve," Ramaphosa said, adding that the cabinet had decided to move to lower, "level two" restrictions from midnight on Monday.
"The move to level two means that we can remove nearly all of the restrictions on the resumption of economic activity across most industries," he said.
Despite imposing one of the world's toughest lockdowns when the country had only a few hundred cases, South Africa saw a surge in coronavirus infections that left it with the fifth highest number of cases in the world -- currently around 579,000, of whom around 11,500 have died.
The COVID-19 crisis has battered an economy already in recession and pushed millions of South Africans deeper into extreme poverty.
But Ramaphosa said rates of new infections had fallen to an average of 5,000 a day, from a peak of 12,000 a day.
This, as well as a rise in recoveries, were "significantly reducing the pressure on our health facilities", but he cautioned that cases could surge if people fail to maintain vigilance. Restrictions on international travel remained in place, he said.
The lifting of restrictions on alcohol will be a relief to the battered hospitality and drinks industries, some of which have been pushed close to bankruptcy and shed thousands of jobs. [nL8N2FF3XB]
"The further easing of restrictions presents us with the greatest opportunity since the start of the pandemic to breathe life into our struggling economy," Ramaphosa said.
(Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams and Ros Russell)