Amid sky-high infections, Netanyahu pushes ministers to extend lockdown

Blue and White said prepared to back move, but only up to 10 days and only if enforcement is upped where closure is being violated; 30%-40% of cases blamed on British variant

Police at a temporary roadblock in Jerusalem during a 3rd nationwide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police at a temporary roadblock in Jerusalem during a 3rd nationwide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government ministers convened Tuesday to discuss extending the national lockdown ordered to curb the coronavirus spread, a day after Israel recorded over 10,000 daily infections, the highest level since the start of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged continuing the lockdown beyond its planned end date on Thursday. Cabinet members from the Blue and White party reportedly conditioned their support for such a measure on increased enforcement of closure orders and limiting the extension to no more than 10 days, as well as other terms.

Criticism has intensified over alleged discrimination in the enforcement of the current lockdown restrictions, with authorities handing out significantly fewer fines in ultra-Orthodox areas, where the outbreak has been disproportionately intense and where there are increasing reports of widespread flouting of the measures.

In addition to debating an extension of the closure, ministers were also expected to approve a fine of NIS 2,500 ($772) for anyone who arrives in the country without a recent negative virus test.

Netanyahu opened the meeting with remarks he also released in a statement before it started, calling for the lockdown to be extended but without specifying for how long. Channel 12 said the prime minister was lobbying for the lockdown to continue until January 31.

The tightened rules have been in effect for 12 days.

“This might not be popular nor convenient during elections, but this is what we need to decide today,” Netanyahu told ministers over videoconference. “It’s a lot easier to ignore the incredible jump in morbidity and just open everything, but this will cost many lives.”

He added that “this is a difficult decision for many Israeli citizens but a last effort is needed here, a joint effort by all of us to get out of the coronavirus [pandemic] and save lives.”

Netanyahu referred to a mass wedding in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak Monday night that violated lockdown rules, describing it as a “bloodletting.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen as the two millionth citizen to get the coronavirus vaccine is given the shot, in Ramla, January 14, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, backed by health officials, wants to lengthen the lockdown by another two weeks, Blue and White ministers are said to be insisting on capping the extension at no more than 10 days, according to leaks from the meeting reported by Hebrew media.

Gantz demanded there be significant enforcement in areas where the lockdown is being violated. He laid down further conditions for agreeing to extend the lockdown which included limiting entry and exit to the country and that school children aged 16-18 be vaccinated, to ensure the bagrut matriculation exams are held as planned. The current lockdown shuttered all non-essential businesses as well as the education system.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who leads Blue and White, said that if there is “enforcement and [public] discipline” the lockdown can end in another week to nine days, Channel 12 reported.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash recommended extending the lockdown by two weeks until February 4, the station said. He reported that the basic reproduction number, a key indicator of the virus transmission, was dropping but said it would take another few days for the full effect of the lockdown to be felt.

The head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, whose organization is advising the government on the virus outbreak, backed up Ash’s assessment that the impact of the lockdown on the virus outbreak is still not evident. He also warned that despite Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign, there are 300,000 Israelis over the age of 60 yet to be inoculated.

Ash further told ministers that health officials estimate the British coronavirus variant is behind 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks. The mutated strain of the virus is more infectious, though not considered more deadly.

The head of public health at the ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said there is no indication so far that the strain is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine that Israel is using in its rapid mass vaccination drive, which has so far given the first of the two-dose inoculation to over a quarter of the country’s population, Channel 12 reported.

Defense and Justice Minister Benny Gantz arrives at the Justice Ministry, in Jerusalem, on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The mutated strain of the virus from Britain and another detected in South Africa are behind the move for new regulations requiring arrivals in the country to present a negative virus test, taken in the country of departure within the previous 72 hours.

Anyone who turns up without such a test, including Israelis or those who lose the document on their way back to country, will be fined NIS 2,500. Air crew who are scheduled to spend more than 72 hours in Israel will be denied entry if they do not have a valid negative test.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday morning that a record 10,021 infections were confirmed the previous day, bringing the country’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 562,167, including 81,059 active cases. The rate of positive tests passed the 10 percent mark for the first time in over three months, with 10.2% of the nearly 100,000 tests coming back positive.

Lockdown enforcement

Gantz’s demand for an increased crackdown on lockdown violators came after data published by the Kan public broadcaster on Monday showed enforcement was far more lax in ultra-Orthodox areas, which have seen the highest per capita infection rates in the country.

The most fines are handed out in Arab localities, where infections are significantly lower than in ultra-Orthodox areas, though still higher than among the rest of the population, the station found.

Footage of yet another mass wedding in Bnei Brak drew outrage on Monday night, with police taking a long time — about an hour after it was widely reported — to arrive. Officers eventually ended the event, handed out fines and summoned the organizers for questioning on suspicion of spreading a disease.

Condemnation came from across the political spectrum, including from Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He said the wedding contravened a Torah commandment to “be very careful with your lives,” caused “severe desecration of God’s name” and tainted the image of the entire Haredi community.

The Israeli town with the highest positive test rate (28.5%), Beitar Illit, has been seeing widespread calls to avoid “informing” on residents who flout the rules. The settlement’s top rabbinical court said contacting authorities was forbidden without its approval.

Roni Numa, the government official who oversees the pandemic response in the ultra-Orthodox community, said in a Monday press briefing that more enforcement was needed to close Haredi schools.

He said that 30% of infections in Israel were coming from the ultra-Orthodox community, but that it appeared the high rate of infection was decreasing. The group constitutes around 10% of the general population. Some 20% of virus tests are coming back positive in ultra-Orthodox areas compared to around 5% in the general population, Numa said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed