Coronavirus cabinet to be cut in half, Netanyahu announces

Coronavirus czar will get ‘all authority’ to cut virus infection chain, PM says

As serious coronavirus cases pass 300, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, appointed to lead campaign against outbreak, shows reluctance for national lockdown

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the government's new coronavirus czar, during a press conference at the Health Ministry on July 23, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)
Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the government's new coronavirus czar, during a press conference at the Health Ministry on July 23, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

New coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu will be given “all the authority” to curb the COVID-19 outbreak following his appointment to the position overnight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday.

Gamzu’s entry as the country’s point man in dealing with the pandemic came as the government indicated that it will not rush to the drastic measure of a national lockdown.

It also came as daily infections continued to hover around the 1,800-2,000 mark Thursday, and as the number of people in serious condition for the first time passed 300.

Speaking during a press conference at the Health Ministry alongside Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Gamzu, Netanyahu said the latter’s chief mission will be to cut the infection chain. To do so he will have full authority over testing, epidemiological investigations and quarantines.

“The government will take decisions on lockdowns and restrictions, we will form policy in coordination with Gamzu’s recommendations,” Netanyahu said in explaining Gamzu’s central role. “We are trying to avoid a general lockdown, but if needed we will [mplement one].”

Netanyahu also said he had agreed with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the alternate prime minister, to cut in half the number of ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet, from 16 to some eight, in order to streamline its work.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Health Ministry, on July 23, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

But Gamzu expressed deep skepticism toward ordering a nationwide lockdown in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“The major mission is to [fight the pandemic] while doing as little harm to society and the economy,” he said and praised the government for acting with “social sensitivity” by refraining from reimposing a lockdown so far.

His comment came as Channel 12 reported that any government decision on a potential new lockdown had been pushed off until August 6. Channel 13, meanwhile, reported that the government is not planning to introduce any more partial restrictions in the meantime.

Acknowledging widespread discontent with the government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, Gamzu said he’ll work to earn the public’s trust. “This is one of my major missions,” he said.

He also said there’s a need “to work quickly” to cut the infection chain, calling on Israelis to observe quarantine rules and be tested for the coronavirus if needed. “Together we can succeed,” he said. “There is no option not to.”

Edelstein welcomed Gamzu saying “he is the right man at the right time.” Together with recently-installed Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy, “they will be a victorious team,” he said.

People wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus, shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on July 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Edelstein has recently warned that if infection rates do not drop the country will need to enter another lockdown, similar to the one begun in mid-March that brought daily infections rates down. The initial lockdown was gradually lifted in recent months.

Channel 13 reported Thursday, citing unnamed senior members of the coronavirus cabinet, that the government is backing down from trying to apply specific closures and restrictions in the near future.

The government has seen a number of measures it ordered over the past week overturned by the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, which oversees government policy. Among the restrictions cancelled were those to close restaurants and gyms, as well as beaches and swimming pools on the weekends. Restaurants have already reopened and gyms will follow at the beginning of next week.

Nonetheless, some weekend lockdown measures, including the shuttering of shopping malls, will remain in place.

Netanyahu during Thursday’s press conference criticized the “populism” of MKs — referring to the Coronavirus Committee head, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. The new legislation passed by the Knesset on Wednesday, he said, the so-called “Great Coronavirus Law,” will strengthen the government’s decision-making authority and make it harder for the Knesset to reverse vital moves.

Israel is in the midst of dealing with rising virus infections. Health Ministry statistics Thursday evening showed 1,758 new coronavirus cases were recorded over the past 24 hours, bringing the number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 57,453.

The ministry reported seven more fatalities, raising the death toll to 440.

Of the 33,097 active cases, 302 people were in serious condition, the first time in Israel there have been over 300 serious COVID-19 patients. Another 127 people were in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.

There are 83 people on ventilators.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, on July 5, 2020. (Amit Shabi/pool/Flash90

Earlier, Netanyahu and Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that the government will allow summer schools and other educational programs to continue operating in their current format until August 6.

Reports last week said the government was likely to order the immediate closure of schools as part of a series of new restrictions to contain the coronavirus, but after pushback from Gallant a decision on the matter was delayed until this week.

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