COVID-19 hits SA telecoms sector, dozens of stores closed

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As SA faces new concerns about the rising spread of COVID-19, the telecoms sector has not been spared, with dozens of stores around the country forced to close.

The country has recorded 196 750 coronavirus cases, largely across Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, which has affected operations in many sectors, including telecoms, which is an essential service.

SA’s leading telco, Vodacom, has confirmed 21 franchise stores were closed at some stage on a temporary basis.

It says these stores have since gone “through a deep cleaning and are currently operating with staff members who have not been in contact with the affected staff members”.

“Given that the health, safety and well-being of staff and customers is of paramount importance, we also ensured that affected employees, including those that may have come into contact with the virus, were quarantined,” says a Vodacom spokesperson.

“We follow very strict health and safety guidelines, including daily temperature and symptom screening checks, daily COVID-19 HSE (health, safety and environment) inspections, the compilation of store-specific COVID-19 OHS (occupational health and safety) risk assessments, COVID-19 OHS training, as well as making sure our staff members adhere to all PPE (personal protection equipment) and other government requirements.”

According to Vodacom, should an employee develop COVID-19 symptoms, “the employee will undergo medical testing. Should the employee test negative, the employee may return to work with a medical fitness certificate. Employees who test positive will go into isolation and receive the necessary medical attention.”

Meanwhile, MTN currently has six of its stores and a warehouse in Gauteng closed due to COVID-19.

The six − at Phumulani Plaza Mall, Centurion Mall, Mall of Africa (two shops), Boulders Shopping Centre and the Warehouse in Midrand − were closed last week following suspected cases of the coronavirus.

“The above-mentioned stores have been temporarily closed as part of MTN’s proactive mass-testing rollout. We have taken a precautionary measure to test all our customer-facing employees and where we find a positive case, we close the store for deep cleaning, sanitising and fumigation, and reopen with a shift of employees who have not tested positive nor been in direct contact with the impacted employee or infected customer. The closure of the store is a minimum of 24 hours,” explains Jacqui O'Sullivan, executive: corporate affairs MTN SA.

She says MTN is currently rolling out testing in phases.

“We have tested store employees in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng. We are currently rolling out testing in KwaZulu-Natal and other provinces. The mass testing is rolled out in high-risk areas where there are large numbers of infections or where there are possible human interactions, such as those who use public transport,” says O’Sullivan.

Telkom has also not been spared, with the telco telling ITWeb it has had “several cases of employees at our stores testing positive for COVID-19, mostly in the Western Cape and Gauteng”.

It says: “Telkom has a comprehensive COVID-19 response. Customer-facing employees are temperature-screened daily, dispatchable technicians have personal thermometers to check and log their temperature daily.

“Employees have masks, face shields, hand sanitisers, surface sanitiser, gloves and hazmat suits for those that work in in high-risk areas such as hospitals. Operations are such that social distancing is observed at the service points to minimise the spread of the virus. We have installed physical separation of customers and agents with plexiglass shields on counters.

“Instances where we find a positive case, the store or building is closed, deep cleaned and fogged to ensure the environment is safe for our employees and customers.”

Cell C has also confirmed COVID-19 cases, saying since the initial lockdown, it had approximately 2% of its store employees test positive; this includes company-owned and franchise-owned employees.

“With the easing of lockdown, the country is regrettably facing a much bigger COVID-19 outbreak challenge with the greater movement of people. The safety of our employees and customers is important to Cell C and so a multidisciplinary COVID-19 task team is in place to continuously conduct risk assessments, devise and implement response strategies whilst ensuring compliance with regulations,” says Cell C.

Additionally, it says Cell C adheres to the phased approach and compliance with the ratio of the workforce allowed back to premises, including stores.

“Those employees who can work from home effectively and productively continue to do so until further notice. Our retail staff have PPE gear to protect themselves and our customers. Social distancing, pre-entry screening, crowd control and regular sanitising are ensured at all stores. Communication on adherence to hygiene protocols is ongoing.”

All the telcos say they follow the National Institute for Communicable Diseases guidelines on taking precautionary measures in the event of suspected exposure, or confirmed case by closing facilities and premises, including stores, for deep cleansing and sanitising.

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