In first meeting, coronavirus cabinet decides against major new restrictions

Health Ministry chief resigns, as new minister expected to make own appointment; travelers to blacklisted countries will pay NIS 5,000 fine

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

People walk with face masks in Jerusalem on June 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People walk with face masks in Jerusalem on June 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The renewed coronavirus cabinet, meeting Sunday evening for the first time since a new government was sworn in, discussed increased testing and enforcement on Israel’s borders and a boosted effort to vaccinate teens — but did not add any major new restrictions on the public, after the indoor mask mandate was reintroduced on Friday.

The meeting came amid fears of a resurgent COVID-19, as a result of the highly contagious Delta variant that is spreading around the world.

The coronavirus cabinet decided to move toward stricter measures at Israel’s main gateway to the world, Ben Gurion Airport, and on tougher sanctions against travelers breaking quarantine.

They also reportedly weighed a handful of new measures, including mandating a third negative COVID test for those returning from abroad, the return of electronic tracking bracelets for those who require quarantine, and the reopening of COVID testing sites run by Magen David Adom.

The cabinet decided that in addition to handling the Delta variant, better infrastructure must be developed to prepare for future COVID mutations or other viruses. Virus czar Nachman Ash and new appointee Roni Numa, who will head the government’s coronavirus efforts at Ben Gurion, were tasked with formulating a better enforcement model for those in quarantine.

The cabinet also decided to conduct full genetic sequencing of COVID variants detected in anyone arriving in Israel.

Earlier on Sunday, ministers in the full cabinet decided that anyone who travels to countries currently forbidden due to their high COVID morbidity rates will be fined NIS 5,000 ($1,500).

The coronavirus cabinet debated different approaches to the ongoing pandemic: an aggressive effort to stamp out the disease or one that is geared toward learning to live with it. They appeared to have chosen the latter.

Following the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office reiterated that its current approach is “maximum protection of Israeli citizens from the spread of the Delta variant, alongside minimum disruption of routine life.”

As of Sunday afternoon, 63 new COVID cases had been confirmed in Israel since midnight, with 1,186 total active cases. The number of those hospitalized dropped from 47 on Saturday to 44 by Sunday evening, and the number of those in serious condition dropped from 26 to 23.

Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Also on Sunday, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy announced that he was resigning from his position ahead of new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s expected appointment of a new ministry head. A ministry’s director-general is usually a minister’s personal appointment, and Levy was himself appointed by Yuli Edelstein when the latter assumed the office last year.

Levy told Horowitz he will stay on the job until his replacement is confirmed, according to Channel 12 news. In his resignation letter, Levy said he will provide his successor with “as much training as necessary, certainly at this time of a new coronavirus outbreak.” Levy said he was “proud of everything the health system has done during the coronavirus [pandemic] until now,” the network reported. Horowitz thanked him for “his service to the country with great professionalism.”

The Health Ministry on Sunday added two countries to the list of nations with an extreme COVID travel warning, but did not make any changes to the countries Israelis are forbidden from visiting.

Belarus and Kyrgyzstan were added to those countries listed as under a “critical travel warning,” joining Uganda, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Namibia, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tunisia.

Nepal and Maldives were removed from the list. If the situation in the remaining countries does not improve, they could be added to the list of countries Israelis are banned from entering.

Those countries are currently Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico, and Russia. Anyone returning to Israel from any of those nations, including those already vaccinated, must quarantine at home for 14 days, and will be fined NIS 5,000.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday appointed Roni Numa to oversee COVID-19 screening at Ben Gurion Airport and other international crossings — widely seen as one of the country’s weak points in curbing the spread of the virus.

“The responsibility will be to deal with this now as well as look toward the future,” Bennett said. “Vaccinations do not always work. There can be variants, next month, next year or in four years, for which there is no vaccine. Therefore, in Israel, which does not have very many crossings, in effect it is a kind of island, there is no reason why we cannot protect ourselves even if there is no vaccine.”

An Israeli girl receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Sunday morning, Bennett warned Israelis against letting down their guard against the ultra-contagious Delta variant.

“Our approach is simple: Maximum protection for the citizens of Israel with minimum disruption to routine and the economy in Israel,” said Bennett at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “Masks instead of restrictions. Vaccinations instead of lockdowns. The Delta variant, as it has been said, infects 50 percent more but we know that the vaccine works. It simply works.”

Bennett said that last week the daily vaccination rate “tripled from 3,000 a day to 10,000. This is not enough. We now want to triple it again and reach 30,000 a day, and this is possible.”

More than 30% of 12-to-15-year-olds have been vaccinated or made an appointment to receive their first shot, Ido Hadari, executive director at Maccabi Healthcare Services told Channel 12 News on Sunday. “We believe that we can reach 50% soon,” he added.

In his remarks on Sunday, Bennett made a particular appeal to teenagers to get vaccinated: “I know how much you want to relax this summer and you can do so. I have four children of these ages; we do not want to impose any restrictions — not on parties, not on trips, not on anything. However, precisely because of this, if you do not want restrictions to be imposed on you, go today and get vaccinated. Talk to your parents and go get vaccinated.”

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