After red light from lawmakers, virus czar says he’ll adjust, soldier on

Ronni Gamzu defends rejected ‘traffic light’ scheme, but says he will rethink plans to bring infection rates down

Coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu during a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Coronavirus czar Roni Gamzu during a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem city hall on August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The head of Israel’s response to the coronavirus pandemic defended his plan for isolating high-infection cities but said he would continue in his post despite the government’s decision to reject his advice to place certain cities under lockdown.

On Sunday, the government scrapped parts of coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” scheme and softened plans to put strict new restrictions on some three dozen cities and neighborhoods where the virus’s spread has been particularly pronounced and which have been labeled “red cities.”

Instead, nighttime curfews and school closings are expected to be put in place there, though on Monday, the government delayed the plan’s deployment by a day, and as of Tuesday morning, a final list of affected areas had yet to be announced, just hours before the curfew was set to begin.

“I understood that I need to rethink my direction regarding restrictions on red cities, but without losing resolve,” Gamzu told Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview published Tuesday morning. “It’s not always nice when they don’t accept your recommendation, but you need to be an adult, look at the bigger picture and do the best you can in a given situation, to help the red cities lower morbidity rates.”

The government’s decision to scupper Gamzu’s lockdown plans in red cities was seen as a result of heavy ultra-Orthodox pressure against the move. Several of the areas on the draft roster of red cities are majority ultra-Orthodox, and local leaders and others had threatened to disregard the new guidelines and pull their political support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Yesterday was complicated,” Gamzu said in reference to the political backlash he and his plan received from Haredi leaders.

Despite the turmoil, Gamzu maintained that “the traffic light program is effecting real results. I expect to see in the next few days a decrease in the number of red cities and overall improvement within the cities themselves.”

Health Ministry figures published Tuesday showed that Israel had recorded nearly 3,400 new infections a day earlier, a record high. The number of patients in serious condition has crept toward 500 and over the weekend the number of fatalities passed the 1,000 mark, it what was seen by some as underlining the government’s slapdash virus policies over the past several months.

Gamzu said Monday’s tally would not affect his resolve, declaring, “It does not matter, and it must not weaken me and take the wind out of my sails.”

Gamzu has repeatedly clashed with the ultra-Orthodox, who have called for his ouster.

He apologized in the interview to the ultra-Orthodox community “if it felt that we are labeling” them specifically as highly infected areas.

On Monday, Gamzu apologized for having misconstrued comments by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered among the most important leaders of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, in which he had appeared to recommend against students being tested for the virus, but had actually been referring only to a specific case.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Aside from labeling ultra-Orthodox cities red, Gamzu has also met Haredi opposition over his drive to ban Hasidic pilgrims from traveling to the Ukrainian town of Uman over Rosh Hashanah, over fears of a mass coronavirus outbreak.

Addressing the residents of highly infected areas, Gamzu said that the government’s decisions to impose restrictions there were not personal.

“I certainly have nothing against you. We are all responsible for each other,” he said.

Most of the localities set for stricter rules are Arab-majority or ultra-Orthodox.

The leaders of most Arab towns have welcomed restrictions as a way to fight off high infection rates in their cities.

Netanyahu has categorically denied that he had allowed pressure from Haredi lawmakers to influence the government’s coronavirus policy, repeatedly dismissing questions from reporters suggesting the contrary during a Monday press conference.

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