Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday said that Israel can overcome the current resurgence of the coronavirus Delta variant without introducing more lockdowns if citizens heed the health rules, but warned closures could eventually be reimposed as a last resort if they do not.
In a press conference from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Bennett warned Israelis to cancel their trips abroad, and pledged to immediately step up police enforcement of mask-wearing indoors.
“We can beat the Delta variant without lockdowns if we are all diligent and determined,” he asserted, telling the public to ensure they wear masks indoors, get vaccinated and keep their distance from others in public.
A rise in cases due to the Delta variant “in a few weeks will translate to many more sick people and many more deaths,” he said, saying the new strain was “sweeping the globe.”
“The easiest thing, like they [the previous government] repeatedly did over the past year and a half, is to shut everything down. We may indeed end up there but we are going to try a different path this time. And it depends on all of us,” Bennett said.
“Vaccines alone won’t stop the spread,” Bennett said, while calling on Israelis to abide by the other guidelines and restrictions. “Within five weeks we can finish this business,” he added.
Meanwhile, an official who was present at a coronavirus cabinet meeting Tuesday night warned that if the public is not careful, Israel will enter a lockdown on the Jewish New Year in September, Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday.
In a plea to Israel’s young population, Bennett said that if they continue to get vaccinated, the government will do its utmost to prevent the upcoming school year from “looking like the previous, terrible year.”
There are still some 300,000 Israelis between the ages of 12-15 that have not yet been vaccinated and an additional 100,000 16-19-year-olds, according to Health Ministry data.
Israel fully reopened its school system in April after a year of mostly remote learning.
Bennett also described the actions of the previous government as “serious neglect,” which he said caused the current spread of the highly contagious variant.
“Our aim is to protect the public while preventing disruptions of regular life as much as possible. More transparency and fewer lockdowns,” said Bennett.
The prime minister also recommended Israelis cancel their summer trips abroad.
“Soon the whole world will become ‘red,’ and your trip will be canceled anyway, so don’t even order,” he said.
Bennett said he had instructed the police to more vigorously check for those not wearing masks in indoor public spaces, and warned they would receive a high fine.
The prime minister also urged Israelis to avoid shaking hands, hugging or kissing anyone outside of their immediate family.
On large gatherings such as weddings and concerts, the prime minister said in the coming days the government will formulate a plan on how such gatherings would be conducted, in light of the rise in cases.
“It is possible that unvaccinated people will not be able to enter places without a negative test result,” he said.
Speaking after Bennett, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said: “We will take measures that will protect us from serious illness, that will harm our life routine as little as possible, and measures that can be lived with over time.”
Horowitz said that in the past Health Ministry decisions were tainted by political and communal considerations. “For us, the decisions are purposeful. We only look at the public interest, the health and the livelihoods of each citizen,” he said.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party responded to Bennett’s claim that the previous government was guilty of “serious neglect” in its management of the coronavirus crisis.
“Bennett convened a press conference to announce that he has no decisions or guidelines while the coronavirus returns to Israel under his watch,” Likud said in a statement. “No excuse from Bennett will explain how he let the coronavirus return to Israel after he received from Netanyahu a country in the best condition in the world,” it added.
According to updated COVID-19 figures published by the Health Ministry Wednesday, the number of seriously ill patients had risen to 53.
756 new cases were diagnosed over the previous day, with an additional 519 by Wednesday afternoon, according to the Health Ministry.
The number of active cases rose to 5,220, and the death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 6,441.
Of the 62,202 tests performed Tuesday, 1.38% came back positive.
The resurgence of the virus, due to the Delta variant, has become a major issue for Bennett’s new government, coming less than two months after the number of cases dwindled as a result of mass vaccination, allowing Israel to lift most restrictions and reopen public life.
However, despite the outbreak, ministers decided Tuesday to ease up on restrictions, shortening quarantine to seven days from the current 10-14 days while declining to back a Health Ministry proposal that would have reimposed some limits on gatherings.
The Health Ministry is seeking to partially reintroduce the Green Pass system for indoor events attended by more than 100 people, such as weddings, performances, gyms, restaurants, cafeterias and houses of worship.
Under the system, people who are unvaccinated and have not recovered from the virus will be barred entry unless they take a rapid virus test outside the venue or present a negative virus test taken in the previous 48 hours.
The system would not be applied to malls, trade areas or public transportation.