Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday said he was working to ensure the economy remains open amid a record surge in morbidity being driven by the Omicron coronavirus strain.
“First, I would like to point out the obvious: We are confronting a wave of infection the likes of which the world has not seen in 100 years. Omicron is a strain that is more infectious than all of the others put together,” said Bennett at the start of a live press conference ahead of a scheduled meeting of the COVID cabinet later in the evening.
But he said his goal was that “the economy will stay open as much as possible and will still be working.”
“I don’t want to see people losing their jobs, closing their businesses,” he said.
Bennett urged Israelis to work from home as much as possible and announced the state will compensate workers for time in quarantine, including for the self-employed, as part of a new initiative agreed to by the Finance Ministry.
“Lockdowns don’t work,” Bennett said, pointing to other countries with lockdown measures that also have skyrocketing cases.
Alongside keeping the economy open are the goals of protecting the elderly and most at-risk populations, as well as children, Bennett said.
Bennett said the rules for schools will be the same as for adults, and therefore many children will enter quarantine because many are not vaccinated.
Israel is providing “the best protection in the world for those who are vulnerable,” he said — including such measures as booster vaccines and pills.
Bennett said he instructed hospital chiefs to prepare for up to 4,000 serious cases at the height of the Omicron wave, well above the predictions by some experts of 1,500-2,500.
He also addressed the hours-long lines at testing stations around the country, promising the state will provide three free antigen test kits per schoolchild this week, with more at-home kits to be distributed to families in the coming weeks.
“The lines are long, I understand. I hate standing in line myself, I know how frustrating it is,” said Bennett, calling on people not to do PCR tests if they are not over 60.
Concluding his prepared remarks, Bennett said, “these will be difficult weeks… There is no place for panic or hysteria. We’ll get through this together.”
His remarks came shortly before Yomtob Kalfon, a Knesset member from his Yamina party, announced that he had tested positive for coronavirus. Kalfon’s condition was not immediately known. Labor lawmaker Emilie Moatti also announced she had the virus on Tuesday night.
With Kalfon and Moatti, 10 lawmakers out of 120 MKs now have the coronavirus. On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev both announced they had the coronavirus.
But Bennett denied the government had “lost control” over the current outbreak and insisted that it was providing “an answer” for affected businesses. Unlike the last government, Bennett told reporters, he was not going “to mortgage our children’s future” by giving out money indiscriminately.
Slams ‘unpatriotic’ Netanyahu
He accused former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of acting “unpatriotically” in his criticisms of the government, referencing a recent video of the opposition leader mocking the reliability of rapid antigen tests.
“Nothing that Netanyahu does will surprise me at this point. This time it’s really grave… He’s eroding the public’s trust in antigen… What he did is not only irresponsible, it’s an unpatriotic act,” he said.
“It’s going to be unpleasant here [in the next few weeks],” Bennett said. “We’re in a situation that happens once in an era… The opposition is trying to create chaos and hysteria. It’s unjustified. We’re managing this better than almost anywhere in the world.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party later fired back at Bennett and doubled down on questioning the accuracy of antigen tests.
“Naftali lost control over the coronavirus,” Likud said. “You failed, go home.”
During the press conference, Bennett also hit out at the media.
“The same studios that are now broadcasting total hysteria called me hysterical a few weeks ago when I said exactly what was going to happen and as we got the country ready,” he said.
Ahead of the coronavirus cabinet meeting and Bennett’s press conference, a forum of experts told the government that the course of the ongoing Omicron-fueled wave of COVID cannot be predicted.
“A reasonable working assumption is that the [current] wave is unstoppable, even with the help of maximal measures, including the declaration of a lockdown. There may be a temporary slowdown, but no stoppage,” said the panel of experts, who are advising the Health Ministry.
They advised against closing schools, but urged “hybrid solutions” when students test positive. They warned those who are elderly and at high risk of COVID complications to avoid contact with crowds or large groups as much as possible.
They also recommended that the government limit large gatherings and institute restrictions on occupancy for most businesses.
The advisers said that in the coming weeks the COVID wave will put very high pressure on the medical system and could prevent people from receiving life-saving treatments, while noting growing evidence from abroad that Omicron is less virulent than other coronavirus strains.
“However, despite the declining violence [of the virus] in different countries, the large number of infections is creating a heavy burden on local health systems, but not to the point of collapse,” they said.
Also Tuesday, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash approved shortening the required quarantine period for Israelis who test positive for COVID-19 to a week, providing they are asymptomatic for the last three of those seven days.
Those still displaying symptoms throughout the week will be required to isolate for 10 days, in line with the current quarantine policy for anyone infected with coronavirus.
“We decided to shorten the number of quarantine days after examining the matter and finding that the chance of infection after a week is low,” Ash said. “This decision will help the economy continue to operate in conditions of high morbidity, while safeguarding public health.”
The change was slated to take effect at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday.
The move came amid a record surge in morbidity that is sending an increasing number of people into quarantine, leading to concerns of economic fallout as an increasing number of people are unable to work because they themselves are sick or need to care for an infected child unable to attend school.