Amid record infection numbers, Netanyahu warns of tighter lockdown

PM says cabinet to decide early next week whether to apply more restrictions; Health Ministry figures show 29 more deaths as toll hits 1,600

Screen capture from a video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a live Facebook broadcast about the coronavirus outbreak and the national lockdown, October 1, 2020. (Facebook)
Screen capture from a video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a live Facebook broadcast about the coronavirus outbreak and the national lockdown, October 1, 2020. (Facebook)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Thursday that if the national lockdown to curb an ongoing coronavirus outbreak does not reduce infection rates, the restrictions will be further tightened.

Netanyahu’s remarks came as Health Ministry figures showed a record high number of virus cases diagnosed in a single day. They also raised the death toll to 1,600, with 48 deaths in the preceding 24 hours.

“On Monday we’ll make a decision on the continuation of the lockdown — tightening or release,” Netanyahu said in a Facebook Live video post during which he answered questions from the public.

“If we see that the lockdown doesn’t work well enough, we will tighten it,” he said. “The only way to reduce the infection rate is with a tight lockdown.”

During the broadcast Netanyahu also said he expects the government will again offer cash handouts to the public, as it did earlier in the year, ostensibly to help citizens weather the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Police stop a person for not wearing a face mask in Jerusalem on October 01, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After a massive spike in coronavirus cases, Israel on September 18 entered its second national lockdown, which has seen most shops and businesses shuttered along with the education system and most Israelis confined within a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius of their homes except for essentials like food and medicines. It began as a three-week closure and was significantly tightened last Friday. On Wednesday, ministers voted to extend the lockdown to October 14.

However, there is reportedly concern among some in the government that the lockdown is proving ineffective as much of the public is loath to adhere to the restrictions.

“The lockdown doesn’t really exist,” one unnamed minister told Channel 12. “People are leaving their homes, inventing excuses, and aren’t particularly worried that they’ll be caught. It’s become a joke. It can’t go on like this. It’s terrible. During the first lockdown, people were hysterical — terrified of the coronavirus. Now it doesn’t work. It’s ineffective.”

One indicator of the apparent change in attitude can be seen in the volume of traffic on the roads. Citing data generated by Apple, which tracked iPhone movements in the country, Channel 12 reported that there has been a 40 percent drop in traffic compared to an 80% fall during the first lockdown. In the central Dan area, since the current closure started there has been just a 10% decrease in traffic compared to 70% in the previous lockdown.

According to an evening update from the Health Ministry, there are 71,956 active coronavirus virus cases in Israel, of which 817 are in serious condition with 186 on ventilators. Another 277 have moderate symptoms and the rest have light or no symptoms of COVID-19.

Since the start of the outbreak, there have been 252,533 confirmed cases of the virus, of which 178,976 have recovered, the ministry figures showed.

Wednesday saw the highest number of confirmed cases in a single day so far, with 9,013 people diagnosed as infected with the virus.

The previous high of 8,385 cases in a single day was notched on September 25, but the last several days had seen infection numbers drop to a few thousand as testing levels fell off due to the weekend and the Yom Kippur holiday.

There were 70,012 virus tests carried out on Wednesday. Meanwhile, results from 67,533 tests to identify new carriers were processed, with 13.3% returning positive.

Police set up a roadblock outside Hadera on September 29, 2020, to enforce a nationwide lockdown. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The lockdown policy has led to sharp divisions within the unity government.

Netanyahu reportedly clashed with Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a Wednesday meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers tasked with forming policy to counter the virus outbreak.

According to the reports, Netanyahu raised the possibility of further tightening the current lockdown, including shrinking the one-kilometer radius that people are currently allowed to travel from their homes to as little as 200 meters.

Gantz reportedly replied, “We’re driving the public crazy” with the constantly changing restrictions.

That complaint led to what reports said was shouting from Netanyahu, who was quoted as telling Gantz, “You don’t tell me what we do or don’t do — this is a meeting and I want this discussion. In March-April we updated the plans all the time.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz gives a televised statement at his home in Rosh Haayin, on September 24, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Finance Minister Israel Katz is also reportedly against any further clampdowns, pushing instead for the lockdown to be eased as soon as possible.

At the meeting, Netanyahu reportedly told ministers it could be a year before the lockdown is fully lifted.

The government has been criticized for a too-quick lifting of restrictions after the last lockdown in the spring, and for failing to reimpose restrictions when infection rates started to rise in July.

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