Fighting COVIDHealth Ministry CEO 'saddened' by Bennett's public criticism

Bennett says he ‘respects’ health officials, yet opposes nationwide restrictions

Before heading home from US, PM calls for vaccination push in Arab towns, where inoculation rate is low and morbidity high; education chief backs idea of vaccines for ages 5-11

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters in New York before boarding a plane back to Israel, September 29, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters in New York before boarding a plane back to Israel, September 29, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

NEW YORK — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that he “greatly respects” the work of medical professionals while opposing some of their proposed policies, after he was criticized by health officials for rebuking them during his trip to the UN General Assembly.

Speaking to journalists before boarding his plane to fly back to Israel, Bennett emphasized that despite pressure, there would not be any new COVID-19 restrictions applied to the general population.

“I greatly respect the medical experts and value their professional work, but placing new restrictions on Israel’s citizens is not the policy of this government,” he said. “Despite the pressures, we will refrain at this stage from placing new restrictions on the population.

“The policy of this government is to keep Israel as open as possible, the economy as open as possible, alongside targeted efforts toward the unvaccinated and infection hotspots.”

Bennett noted that the 40 towns and cities with the highest rates of infection in Israel are Arab communities, and that more than 90 percent of the hospitalized in the country are unvaccinated.

He promised to focus efforts on Arab towns, and said that the cost of renewed public restrictions would be thousands of jobs lost.

The remarks came amid a feud between Bennett and health officials, who fumed after the premier made their differences public during his trip to the US.

During a briefing with Israeli journalists while in New York, Bennett took a swipe at officials advising the government on its coronavirus approach, amid reported disagreements over whether to impose further restrictions.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, at UN headquarters in New York. (John Minchillo/Pool/AFP)

The premier made several comments criticizing officials, saying, among other things, that “they don’t see the full picture” and that they “stuttered” when he demanded explanations for their call to further limit public gatherings.

During his speech at the UN, Bennett said that “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.”

Interviewed by the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that Bennett’s public critique “was unnecessary and unfortunate,” adding that he fully supported health officials’ work — though he agreed with Bennett that fresh limitations were unwarranted.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash told Channel 12 that he was “saddened” that such criticism had been highlighted by Bennett at the UN rather than “the great dedication of medical teams in their daily work to save lives under great strain.”

“It’s an unpleasant feeling,” he added. “We didn’t expect such comments… and I am very content with our work.”

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ministry’s head of public health services, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said during a Wednesday discussion at the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting that “people in the Health Ministry are working professionally and with dedication.”

Commenting Wednesday on the back-and-forth between Bennett and health officials, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said he would “not allow a situation in which the government and officials are vying for credit.”

He also appeared to back Bennett.

“The professionals in health, economics and education will submit recommendations and the government will decide. This is the hierarchy and there is no other,” he said in a statement from his Yesh Atid party.

“We have not yet defeated the virus. We all have one enemy – the coronavirus,” Lapid added.

Also Wednesday, Bennett emphasized his government’s policy during a call with the directors of Israel’s four health providers, Health Ministry director Ash, COVID-19 czar Salman Zarka, and IDF Home Front Command head Ori Gordin.

He said the key to defeating the pandemic with minimal cost was to increase vaccination rates, conduct mass testing and enforce the Green Pass system limiting entry to most public places only to people who are vaccinated, recovered or have taken a recent test.

Bennett told the HMOs that they should focus their vaccination efforts on Arab communities, “since vaccination rates in Arab communities and in East Jerusalem are particularly low.”

A girl performs a COVID-19 rapid antigen home kit test ahead of returning back to school, following the Sukkot holiday, in Haniel, central Israel on September 27, 2021. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Government-supervised daycares opened on Wednesday after the Sukkot holiday, with schools set to resume classes on Thursday, amid uncertainty over new COVID testing demands for students and Green Pass rules for teachers.

From Sunday, more than one million Israelis will lose their Green Pass after a policy change dictated that a COVID-19 booster shot is required six months after receiving the first two doses.

Among them are almost half the country’s teachers, according to an estimate from the Israel Teachers’ Union.

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.

The director of the secondary school teachers’ union, Ran Erez, sent an urgent letter to Bennett urging a two-month delay in implementing the policy, to allow teachers to get their booster shots and become Green Pass-compliant, warning that the decision to dock pay for those without the pass would be challenged in court.

Education Ministry Director-General Yigal Slovik told Radio 103FM on Wednesday morning that the rules were nonnegotiable, at least as concerned children.

“A child who arrives without a parent’s report about conducting a test will not be allowed into the school,” he said, adding that exceptions would only be granted when necessary, for instance when a kid has arrived on a school bus and cannot return home, with parents unable to come quickly.

Education Ministry Director-General Yigal Slovik speaks at a press conference at the Ministry of Education in Tel Aviv, August 31, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a separate interview, Slovik told Channel 12 news that the education system would support a potential government decision in the coming months to start vaccinating children aged 5-11, after Pfizer said it would apply to US regulators for approval for the move.

“In the coming week we will start discussions on how best to encourage and operate the vaccine system for kids under the age of 12,” Slovik said. “We are committed to this issue.”

The high-level coronavirus cabinet will convene on Sunday for the first time in a month, with Bennett set to resist imposing any new coronavirus restrictions despite hundreds of new COVID deaths.

While Israel’s fourth wave of infections has seen record numbers of daily cases, the number of patients needing hospitalization has remained lower than previous bouts, which experts attribute to the country’s high vaccination rates.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 7,692 on Wednesday. September is the second consecutive month that Israel has recorded at least 500 deaths, after August saw 609 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

At the same time, ministry figures showed 2,386 new infections on Tuesday, continuing a slow downward trend, though testing tends to decline sharply over weekends and Jewish festivals. The testing positivity rate on Tuesday was down to 3.42 percent, the lowest since August 4.

The number of serious cases was at 659, continuing a plateau of more than a month.

Government figures placed the basic reproduction rate of the virus, which measures transmission, at 0.73. Any number over 1 indicates infections are rising, while a figure below that signals that an outbreak is abating.

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