Transport minister Fikile Mbalula has explained his department’s decision to allow 100% capacity for some transport services, and not others, during the country’s Covid-19 lockdown.
South Africa’s lockdown regulations and health and safety guidelines currently place limits on the number of people which may attend gatherings, as well as social distancing requirements of 1.5 metres.
Retail businesses are also required to measure their floor space to ensure that more than 50% of their floor space is not taken up by people.
However, the country’s transport regulations currently allow for maximum capacity for certain vehicles, raising questions around health and safety.
Answering in a written parliamentary Q&A, Mbalula said that in terms of the Public Transport Directions published on the 22 July 2020, loading capacity for long-distance public transport travel is restricted to 70%.
For any trip regarded as ‘short distance’, a 100% capacity is allowed.
“Medical experts and professionals advised that the longer you are exposed to an infectious person the more likely you are to be exposed to the virus,” he said.
“This implies that encounters with an infectious person for a short time have a lesser risk of spreading the virus.”
Mbalula said it is for this reason that allowing closer contact of passengers, at 100% capacity, on shorter trips/period, coupled with other mitigating measures such as wearing of masks and sufficient ventilation, would not necessarily pose a higher risk of infection to passengers.
“It should also be emphasised that the wearing of masks is currently compulsory,” he said.
Mbalula said he has permitted aircraft to be filled to capacity – except for the two rows in the front or back of the cabin.
He explained that these must be kept open in case a suspected case is identified during flight.
The minister said that this decision was taken following a risk assessment exercise and the implementation of a multi-layered approach to the prevention of the spread of the virus.
Mbalula also cited research from ATA, Airbus, Boeing & Embraer which highlights how safe it is to fly.
“The risk of transmission in the modern cabin environment is low for a number of reasons: passengers face the same direction, seatbacks act as barriers, air flow is from the top to bottom, and the air is also very clean,” he said.
He noted that modern jet aircraft are equipped with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. These filters have similar performance to those used in hospital operating theatres and industrial clean rooms and these HEPA filters are 99.9+% effective at removing viruses, bacteria and fungi.
“The air in the aircraft cabin comprises of around 50% fresh air from outside the aircraft and 50% of HEPA filtered air. The air in the cabin is renewed 20-30 times an hour, once every 2-3 minutes and about 10 times more than most office buildings. Research has shown that the airflow in an aircraft (from ceiling to floor) is effective to prevent the droplet spread in the cabin.”
Mbalula added that aircraft by their nature are confined spaces and for decades operators have relied on sophisticated air conditioning systems to filter out viruses that could be carried by passengers.
“These systems have proven to be effective in filtering out viruses and bacteria that could be exchanged on board an aircraft. Studies conducted by aircraft manufacturers and operators prove the effectiveness of these systems. Same have been by international bodies regulating civil aviation world-wide.”
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