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As COVID cases wane, Health Ministry chief drops demand for new restrictions

Coronavirus cabinet to convene Sunday for first time in over a month; meeting comes as nearly 2 million Israelis lose Green Pass under updated rules

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials will drop their demand for additional COVID restrictions on the public, amid a steady decline in serious morbidity, ministry director-general Nachman Ash said late Saturday.

“As the decline in morbidity continues, we can say that we are at the beginning of the exit from this wave,” Ash told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview.

“In light of the declining trend in morbidity, no stricter restrictions will be required in the coronavirus cabinet,” he said, walking back Health Ministry plans to advocate for additional health regulations.

The high-level coronavirus cabinet is set to convene on Sunday for the first time in over a month. The meeting will now focus on coronavirus restrictions in schools, and the new Green Pass eligibility rules which go into effect on Sunday.

Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting comes after a public spat between Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and health officials over the imposition of new restrictions, which the premier opposes. In a briefing with Israeli journalists in New York, Bennett accused the medical experts advising the government of “not seeing the full picture” and stressed that they don’t make the final decisions — the government does.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz called the comments “unnecessary and unfortunate,” while Ash said that the words were unexpected and “unpleasant.”

Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash attends a press conference about the coronavirus, in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett met with the top health officials on Thursday, and they released a joint message which appeared to mark an end to the feud. The Kan public broadcaster reported on Friday that the sides also agreed to release future information regarding COVID policy through joint statements.

On Saturday, Bennett said that it was “still too early to celebrate” amid signs that the current wave of COVID-19 is waning.

“We are at a critical stage,” the premier said in a statement, with the reopening of the education system and the intention to end large-scale quarantines and move to a model of extensive testing and the quarantine of verified cases only.

“It is precisely now that we must be strict about the Green Pass, be careful and not become complacent,” he added, calling on all those who are not fully vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.

“The vaccine saves lives, and the extent of the country’s vaccination is what allows it to remain open and functioning.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

New Green Pass rules take effect on Sunday, with nearly 2 million Israelis set to lose their passes under the updated immunity guidelines, due to not being vaccinated with a COVID-19 booster shot.

At the same time, police will step up enforcement of the proof of vaccine document at gatherings and venues in cities with high rates of infection.

Israel — the first country to officially offer a third dose — began its COVID-19 booster campaign on August 1, initially rolling it out to those over the age of 60. It then gradually dropped the eligibility age, eventually expanding it to everyone aged 12 and up who received the second shot at least five months ago.

Health worker prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Starting on Sunday, the Green Pass will be valid for six months since a person’s last shot. All existing Green Passes will be voided and all Israelis must receive new ones through the Health Ministry’s website or app (the new passes became available on Saturday night after midnight).

The pass is only valid from one week after receiving the last required dose. The document, held by those who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, enables access to many public places and events, including restaurants and museums.

A temporary Green Pass can also be obtained through a negative virus test, which must be paid for unless the individual is not eligible for vaccination.

As the new, more restrictive regulations come into effect, Israel continues to show signs it is coming out of its fourth COVID-19 wave. On Friday, the number of Israelis hospitalized in serious condition due to COVID-19 dropped below 600 for the first time since August 17, according to figures from the Health Ministry.

Young students arrive for their first day of school after the holidays, at Gabrieli School in Tel Aviv, on September 30, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The new number of serious cases stood at 586. Of those patients, 422 were unvaccinated, 108 received only two of the three vaccine doses, and 37 patients had received all three shots.

Of the nearly 120,000 samples tested on Thursday, 3.81 percent (or 4,353) came back positive. The number of total active cases stood at 45,412, with the death toll since the start of the pandemic rising by five to 7,766.

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