JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – South Africa’s mining industry has so far recorded 320 cases of the new coronavirus, the Minerals Council said on Wednesday as underground mines prepare to ramp up output when Africa’s most industrialised economy eases lockdown measures next week.

Mines across South Africa, the world’s biggest producer of platinum and chrome and a leading producer of gold and diamonds, were forced to shut temporarily when a nationwide coronavirus lockdown began in late March.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday announced a further easing of the lockdown from June 1, allowing the vast majority of the economy to return to full capacity.

The Minerals Council, a body representing mining companies, said that close to 5,000 COVID-19 tests have been conducted so far and it expects the number of cases to rise.

“Clearly we are going to see an escalation in those numbers, but we will manage those numbers, do the screenings and keep people in isolation,” Minerals Council CEO Roger Baxter told a virtual panel discussion.

Open-cast mines have been allowed to work at full capacity again since May 1, while deep-level mines – where social distancing is more difficult – were restricted to 50%.

Underground miners have argued that operating at half capacity is unsustainable while unions remain concerned about the safety and welfare of workers, with the National Union of Mineworkers calling on its members to refuse to work in mines that are not adhering to COVID-19 safety regulations.

Gold miner AngloGold Ashanti suspended operations at its Mponeng mine on Sunday after 164 workers tested positive for COVID-19. That number rose to 196 on Monday.

(Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg and Helen Reid; Editing by David Goodman)