PM says 2-4 million Israelis will get COVID in current wave

Bennett appeals for ‘patience’ amid public dismay over shifting, unclear COVID rules

Poll shows negative view of government’s Omicron policies; minister says ‘public isn’t with us’; ailing restaurateurs fume as Liberman says ‘all businesses in excellent shape’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 19, 2021. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 19, 2021. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Given widespread public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the current coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appealed for patience Sunday evening, saying he was aware of the frustration over the frequently changing testing and quarantine rules, and lack of compensation to businesses.

The government is reportedly weighing reversing the new controversial policy to limit PCR tests to risk groups while having the general public take less-accurate antigen tests.

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman dismissed complaints from business owners who reported a steep decrease in income, claiming that “all businesses are in excellent shape” and that the government would not be handing “gifts” in the form of payouts, which he deemed “election bribes.”

Under new testing regulations, those who are over 60 or at high risk are prioritized at PCR testing stations. Those who are under 60 and fully vaccinated are encouraged to conduct a rapid antigen test, either at home or at a testing station, and can use those results to get exemptions from quarantine if they are exposed to a confirmed coronavirus carrier.

The new rules came amid a huge surge in infections driven by the highly contagious Omicron, which strained PCR testing centers to the limit, as more and more people came to get tested after coming into contact with carriers or experiencing symptoms.

But since the rule change, Israelis have been swamping antigen testing facilities and drugstores to purchase home antigen tests — regarded as far less accurate than PCR tests, particularly when it comes to detecting the Omicron strain — with Health Ministry hotlines collapsing amid the mass confusion over the new rules. Some Israelis have also reportedly been refusing to take home antigen tests and “voluntarily” putting themselves in quarantine.

Much of the confusion has been related to quarantine and testing rules at schools, public feuding between the health and education ministries and conflicting statements on tests at schools, and the new quarantine rules.

Bennett said Sunday that the government would supply free home antigen tests to students and teaching staff, and the health and education ministries said in a joint statement that the distribution would begin on Monday. Elementary schools will be the first to get them, followed by middle schools and high schools.

People line up in a queue at the entrance to a COVID-19 rapid antigen Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem’s Cinema City on January 9, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Health Ministry announced that more businesses would be permitted to sell the tests in the hope that this would increase availability and lower prices. Officials have been debating placing price caps on at-home tests to clamp down on price gouging, as demand outstrips supply and due to concerns that a shift to at-home testing would put strain on Israelis unable to afford the rapid tests.

A survey published Sunday evening by Channel 12 news showed the public was deeply opposed to the government’s response to the current outbreak, with 63 percent of respondents rating its performance as bad, and just 34% saying it was good. Bennett’s individual performance was also regarded as overwhelmingly bad (62% versus 34%), as were the performances of Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz (57%-35%), Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (65%-25%) and Liberman (66%-26%).

Both Channel 12 news and Channel 13 news reported Sunday evening that the government was leaning toward at least partially reversing the recently announced testing rule change and reopening PCR tests to the general public, as the long lines at antigen test sites came alongside reportedly relatively empty PCR testing facilities.

In an appeal to citizens for patience and understanding Sunday evening, Bennett wrote on Facebook: “I understand the frustration and I am listening to it. I also have children in school, and we are also trying to maneuver this complex situation.”

Bennett said that information presented to the cabinet earlier Sunday showed the likelihood that “a total of 2 to 4 million citizens will be infected during this current wave. This is a storm that is happening around the world, even in countries that instituted a lockdown.”

COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, September 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The prime minister wrote that the government was working to continue to provide solutions to ongoing issues: “I am listening to the distress, to the long lines and the high price of tests. We are working to alleviate things as much as possible, but we will all need patience and resilience.”

The comments came after ministers reportedly criticized the current handling of the outbreak during a weekly cabinet meeting.

“The public isn’t with us and there’s much confusion,” said Welfare Minister Meir Cohen, while Economy Minister Orna Barbivai added: “We aren’t clear in our instructions. All day, people are asking us for clarifications. The feeling among the public is that we have given up on the fight against COVID-19.”

“To understand the lack of public trust, one needs to go to the lines for Magen David Adom tests,” said Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, as Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata argued that “the main problem is lack of consistency in the decisions and frequent changes.”

However, Horowitz, the health minister, claimed in an interview with Channel 13 that the government was doing “excellent work” and that its policy was proving itself in the lack of current strain on the health system. He also argued that Israel’s COVID-19 figures were far better than those of other countries.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Finance Ministry offices in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even more controversial were comments by Finance Minister Liberman in a briefing to reporters, dismissing the reported suffering of some business owners, particularly restaurateurs, some of whom have reported that their profits have been halved.

“I’ve seen business owners talk about losses,” Liberman said. “I’ve seen the dividends they’ve gained. Any business that is harmed needs to be helped. All businesses are in excellent shape and I am happy for it. All the shops and restaurants were full in Modi’in. As of today, from talks with businesspeople, the problem is manpower shortages.”

Asked about government payouts to businesses similar to those handed out by the previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu, Liberman said: “I haven’t said that under no circumstances will there be aid to businesses, but there will be no handing out of gifts. There will be no election bribes.”

Officials in the restaurant business slammed Liberman. Tomer Mor, who heads a restaurateur advocacy group, said the finance minister was “referring to the economy on the macro level and ignoring the specific reality on the ground for restaurant owners.”

Mor was quoted by Channel 12 as saying that as rampant infections cause potential customers to stay home, nationwide data has shown a 40% decrease in restaurants’ profits, starting last week.

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