Bennett jabs at experts over COVID approach: ‘They don’t see the full picture’

PM asserts health officials ‘stuttered’ when questioned why folk-rock concert should be prevented, amid reported disagreements over further restrictions

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday took a swipe at health officials advising the government on its coronavirus approach, amid reported disagreements over whether to impose further restrictions.

“With all due respect to the cabinet of medical experts,” he said during a briefing with Israeli journalists while in New York for the UN General Assembly, “they don’t see the full picture.”

“Some of them objected to the booster at the moment of truth. I don’t accept the ‘who cares’ response regarding money and income. The medical experts are an important [source of] input but not exclusive,” he said.

Bennett added: “They don’t make national decisions, we do,”

The premier also suggested health officials did not have sufficient answers when questioned on their policy recommendations.

“When I asked them why we need to shut down a Shlomo Artzi performance because of this or that community, they stuttered,” he said, referring to the popular Israeli folk-rock singer-songwriter.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash (L) and Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Bennett appeared to issue softer criticism of Israeli health officials during his speech to the UN General Assembly earlier Monday.

“Running a country during a pandemic is not only about health. It’s about carefully balancing all aspects of life that are affected by corona, especially jobs and education,” he said. “While doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative. The only person that has a good vantage point of all considerations is the national leader of any given country. Above all, we’re doing everything in our power to provide people with the tools needed to protect their lives.”

Following Bennett’s remarks, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz hailed the officials advising the government.

“Let it be clear — Health Ministry experts are doing devoted and excellent work… They are saving lives, every day,” Horowitz tweeted. “Their professional recommendations are the first consideration that guides us, even if not the only consideration.”

He also said, “It’s permitted and necessary to express any opinion on we the politicians’ conduct, even if it’s uncomfortable for us. That’s the role of the experts.”

The comments came after a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet was called for Sunday, the first time the high-level forum will convene in a month. The last time the cabinet met was in late August, before the school year began and ahead of the Jewish holidays.

With recent figures on morbidity mixed, government and health officials have appeared to feud over imposing additional coronavirus restrictions, with Bennett reportedly deciding against further limitations on gatherings.

Israelis, some wearing face masks, walk in downtown Jerusalem on September 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meeting Saturday night with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka, Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash, and the directors of Israel’s health providers, Bennett reportedly said that proposed restrictions on gatherings would harm the economy and would not reduce morbidity.

“The government policy is an open Israel alongside an unrelenting and sophisticated war against the virus. Not quarantines, lockdowns, more and more restrictions, which is the easiest thing to do, but solutions,” he said, according to the Ynet news site.

“I think about the patients. Everyone in the coronavirus ward is a heartache, but I also think about the economy, the education, the parents who have to work and the children who have to study,” he reportedly said.

Bennett was said to have told the heads of Israel’s HMOs that their focus must continue to be pushing the vaccinations.

Over 6 million Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, and more than 3 million have received the third booster.

An Israeli woman receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Jerusalem, September 20, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Tensions between health officials and cabinet members have reportedly risen in recent days, as the officials have warned of the need for further restrictions on the public, which the ministers have resisted.

During a meeting last week, a government advisory panel reportedly urged ministers to reconsider their approach to the pandemic, calling for a policy putting greater emphasis on reducing serious morbidity and urging more limitations on gatherings.

But Hebrew University researchers also presented a study predicting that the number of new cases will decline over the next 10 days, followed by a drop in serious cases, as updated Green Pass rules mandating booster shots take effect next month.

Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting will come days after a government decision that anyone who has not received a booster shot six months after getting a second vaccine dose will have their Green Pass revoked.

In addition, from October 3, teachers will be required to have a Green Pass to enter schools. The date marks the start of the first full week back at school after the holiday period, which ends next week with the conclusion of the Sukkot festival.

Under the current Green Pass rules, entry to certain businesses and events is limited to those with proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19, or a negative test result.

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