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Bennett defends ‘drastic steps’ against Omicron in call with Austrian, Czech leaders

PM argues phone tracking, closure of borders necessitated by continued uncertainty over new coronavirus strain, touts boosters as effective tool to combat pandemic

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a video conference with Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babic about the COVID-19 pandemic, November 30, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a video conference with Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babic about the COVID-19 pandemic, November 30, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke Tuesday with his Austrian and Czech counterparts about the COVID-19 pandemic, defending the use of phone tracking and other measures that Israel has recently imposed to counter the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the leaders swapped insights from their nations’ respective experiences battling the virus and on “the challenges of managing a country” amid a pandemic.

Bennett’s video call with Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babic came as the two Central European countries face surging infections, and as Israel takes steps to prevent the potential spread of Omicron.

“As we are still uncertain about the variant and as the [morbidity] numbers are still very low, we completely closed our borders to foreigners at this stage,” the premier said.

He also defended the government’s approval of phone tracking by the Shin Bet security service to locate suspected Omicron cases, reviving a controversial tool used earlier in the pandemic.

“Because it’s very early and there is still a lot of uncertainty we are using drastic steps,” he said.

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

During the call, Bennett also touted vaccine booster shots as a key tool against the virus.

“The booster has a very quick impact. Within five to six days after the third vaccine [dose], we see a quick change, both in protection from infection and from serious illness,” he said.

Citing the difficulty of convincing those who have not been vaccinated at all to get a shot, Bennett said it was instead “a lot easier to convince those who were already vaccinated twice to do it a third time.”

“If people don’t take the third vaccine, we will see contagion bypass the immunity of people who were vaccinated twice and then they say to themselves that the vaccine doesn’t work and lose confidence in it. But this is a mistake, because you need three vaccines for them to be effective,” he added.

“People who were vaccinated twice are defended well — not perfectly — from serious disease, but they can still infect others.”

An Israeli receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a healthcare center in Katzrin, November 16, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Israel approved boosters for anyone over 12 in August during a surge in morbidity and has required Israelis to get a third dose to retain their vaccine passes six months after getting a second shot.

However, the number of people who have received a third shot remains well below the number who got the two initial doses. According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 4,078,395 have been administered a booster, and 5,775,598 have gotten two shots. Over 6.3 million people in Israel have received at least one shot.

Last week, Israel began offering vaccines to children ages 5-11, with initial figures from health providers indicating they are being inoculated at a faster pace than when shots were okayed for kids between 12 and 15.

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