The coronavirus risk alert could be reduced in most parts of South Africa by May-end, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said.
South Africa, which has so far recorded 219 COVID-19 deaths and over 11,000 confirmed infections, is currently under a level-4 lockdown in a five-level risk-based strategy to tackle the global pandemic.
"If we lift the lockdown too abruptly and too quickly, we risk a rapid and unmanageable surge in infections. We will therefore continue to proceed cautiously," Ramaphosa said on Wednesday.
He said the infections were mostly concentrated in few metropolitan municipalities and districts. "It is important we maintain stringent restrictions in these areas and restrict travel from these parts to areas with low infection rate," the president said.
"We will immediately begin a process of consultation with relevant stakeholders on a proposal to place most of the country on alert level-3 by the end of May, but parts of the country with the highest rates of infection remain on level-4. We will make further announcements after the completion of the consultations," he said.
In the level-4 lockdown, very few businesses are allowed to open. South Africa started the coronavirus lockdown with a total shutdown, straining the economy, hitting jobs and food distribution.
On Wednesday, Ramaphosa said there would be changes to the level-4 regulations in the coming days to expand range of business in the retail space and e-commerce. Lifestyle restrictions would also be eased, including outdoor exercise.
Reacting to prominent business leaders, academics and politicians criticising the lockdown rules, Ramaphosa acknowledged some of the regulations were "unclear and contradictory." Some members of the ruling African National Congress had publicly disagreed with the regulations.
"We must acknowledge that as we confront this unprecedented challenge, may times we have fallen short of your expectations. Some of our actions have been unclear, contradictory and sometimes poorly explained.
"Implementation has sometimes been slow, enforcement inconsistent and in cases too harsh," Ramaphosa said, promising to respect citizen rights.
However, he defended the lockdown, which is now in its 48th day, calling it "absolutely necessary".
Without the lockdown, the president said, the number of infections would have soared uncontrollably, health facilities would have been overwhelmed and many thousand more would have died in South Africa.
"From the very beginning, our response has been guided by advice from world-leading experts from our own country and across the globe. We have also benefited from the guidance from the World Health Organization.
"The experiences that other nations have been through have also given us invaluable insights," he said, adding that at a similar stage in the progression of the disease the United States had recorded over 22,000 deaths and the United Kingdom over 19,000 deaths, while South Africa's toll was 219.
The coronavirus, which first emerged in China's Wuhan city in December last, has across the world so far claimed nearly 3,00,000 lives with over 4.3 million confirmed cases.