By G9ija

South African police have arrested more than 7,000 people caught without face masks in public since the end of December, the government said on Wednesday.

Officials made face coverings mandatory in May last year at the same time as they gradually eased movement restrictions imposed in March to stem coronavirus infections.

A partial lockdown was reinstated last month as the virus resurged, fuelled by a more transmissible variant.

Officials at the time vowed to be more stringent in enforcing the regulations, which include an alcohol sales ban.

Police Minister Bheki Cele on Wednesday said more than 20,000 people had been arrested or fined since December 29 for breaching the new rules, including 7,455 people detained for not wearing face masks.

More than 830 people have also been arrested for selling, dispensing and transporting alcohol.

“Law enforcement agencies do not enjoy making these arrests,” Cele noted in a statement.

“However, officers… are left with no choice in the interest of saving lives.”

More than 342,000 people have been arrested for contravening coronavirus measures since South Africa declared a national state of disaster in March 2020.

The country is the continent’s worst-affected by the pandemic, with more than 1.2 million coronavirus cases and 34,000 deaths recorded to date.