'Appoint one person to run the whole operation'

Bennett demands his Defense Ministry take over virus battle from Health Ministry

Defense minister: Pandemic is ‘biological warfare’; Health Ministry chief says it’s a ‘privilege’ to be able to talk about exit strategy, as figures give rise to cautious optimism

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is interviewed on Channel 12 news, April 4, 2020 (Screen grab)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is interviewed on Channel 12 news, April 4, 2020 (Screen grab)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Saturday that management of the coronavirus pandemic should be transferred immediately to his office and the Israel Defense Forces below it.

“If we want to cope with this [pandemic], if we want to reopen the Israeli economy, then all responsibility for managing the coronavirus crisis — from A to Z — must be transferred to the IDF and the Defense Ministry as quickly as possible,” Bennett said.

“We’re in a war. We’re in a tough biological war, against nature,” he told Channel 12. “But it’s a war with colossal logistics. With a million elderly people.

The Health Ministry should help determine policies. But it’s not designed as an operational hierarchy, he said. “We wouldn’t let a geologist run a [nationwide] operation to save the people from an earthquake.”

Temporary checkpoints at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Bennett noted that the IDF is currently deployed in the predominately ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, is involved in testing and is taking responsibility in facilities for the elderly, which are viewed as particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

“The greatest lesson to learn from other countries is to appoint one person to run the whole operation,” he said, apparently referring to himself. “We’re in a war the likes of which we’ve never known.”

“We want the testing system to succeed and so it should have been transferred to the IDF a month ago,” Bennett said. “This is not just a matter of swabs, it’s much more complex. The IDF and the Defense Ministry know this kind of work.”

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov is seen at a drive-through site for coronavirus testing samples collection, in Tel Aviv, on March 20, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

However, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov immediately dismissed the idea, telling Channel 12 that his office is managing the crisis in cooperation with the Defense Ministry and there’s no need to create a different hierarchy.

“We all need to work together,” he said, adding “and that is the way we are working.”

Bar Siman-Tov also struck a cautiously optimistic note, following reports that officials believe the current rate of infection in Israel is rising at a relatively controlled rate and shows signs of remaining within levels that the health system can tolerate.

“The fact that we are holding discussions about an exit strategy from the crisis is a privilege,” he said.

The Health Ministry announced Saturday that there have now been 7,851 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel with 126 people in serious condition, 108 of whom are on ventilators. A total of 458 people have recovered from the virus while 43 have died.

Bar Siman-Tov added that his ministry is not to blame for fewer tests being done than promised, because of a shortage of kits. “Yesterday we did 9,000 tests,” he said, claiming Israel is doing better than most other countries. “The whole world is confronting the same… very complex problems.”

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the Health Ministry would reach 10,000 tests per day before expanding toward 20,000, the latest daily figures have lagged behind at just 6-7,000.

This is due to a lack of materials necessary to carry out the tests, officials said, adding that the drive-through testing sites have decreased activity significantly as a result.

A Magen David Adom ambulance service testing site in Bnei Brak on April 1, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

On Friday the Health Ministry reportedly decided to restrict its criteria for coronavirus tests amid a shortage of testing material in laboratories.

Reports earlier this week said the Israeli laboratories that process the tests were running out of reagents — substances used for chemical analyses — required by the tests.

According to the new guidelines, in order to receive a test, a person must have symptoms of COVID-19, and have been with a virus-carrier, or returned to Israel from abroad or from the Palestinian territories, in the 14 days before their symptoms appeared, the Ynet news site reported. In other words, displaying symptoms of COVID-19 is no longer enough to qualify for a test for the disease.

The symptoms specified by the Health Ministry include a temperature over 38°C (100.4°F), a cough, difficulty breathing, or other respiratory symptoms.

A person is considered at risk if they were near a coronavirus-carrier for over 15 minutes at a distance of under two meters.

People who work in high risk settings, such as hospitals or nursing homes, are also eligible, as are people returning from foreign countries experiencing severe outbreaks.

Previously, people only needed to display symptoms and receive approval from medical personnel to qualify for a test.

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