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Edelstein: Israel in worst outbreak since start of pandemic

Paving way for lockdown extension, MKs set to vote on upping enforcement

96 die of COVID-19 in a day, as coalition infighting continues; ultra-Orthodox lawmakers said planning to boycott committee vote on increasing fines for rule-breakers

Israeli police clash with Haredi men as they enforce coronavirus restrictions in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, January 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli police clash with Haredi men as they enforce coronavirus restrictions in the Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, January 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As infection rates remained high and nearly 100 people died in a day of COVID-19, lawmakers were set to vote Thursday on doubling fines for those who flout regulations, enabling a scheduled cabinet meeting on a extending of the nationwide lockdown.

The move to raise the fines is opposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Many institutions in Haredi society have continued to operate throughout the lockdown, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

Despite that, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee was to vote on Thursday afternoon for stricter enforcement that will include doubling fines for institutions found to be violating the virus regulations.

However, the head of the panel, United Torah Judaism MK Ya’akov Asher, will not attend the meeting and it will be boycotted by all ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, according to Hebrew media reports.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An unnamed source from one of the ultra-Orthodox parties told Channel 12 news that “they decided not to allow the public discourse to claim that they thwarted the fight against the coronavirus [regulation] violators.”

The Blue and White party had been warning that unless a proposal for far stricter enforcement passes, it would not allow the cabinet to meet Thursday to extend the lockdown beyond Sunday.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud, considered a close ally to Netanyahu, said Thursday morning that the legislation hiking fines for institutions that violate the rules would “pass today in its original form.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We will work to have it voted on today so that we can immediately begin enforcement [against] all those who do not follow the guidelines,” Zohar told Army Radio.

According to Channel 12, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, although theoretically aligned on the need for the lockdown to continue, differ over how long it should go on against a backdrop of fighting over the legislation to raise fines for those who flout the restrictions.

If the cabinet meeting goes ahead, the Health Ministry was expected to ask for the lockdown to be extended by a week, with Channel 12 reporting that ministers would only agree to an additional four days.

On a visit to Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center on Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that the country was seeing its worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.

“Without a significant decrease in the number of patients whose condition is serious, we will not be able to end the lockdown. In my opinion, we should continue the lockdown for a short period of time,” Edelstein said.

“The British mutation means that morbidity is not decreasing, and we are in a difficult situation that has not been seen since the outbreak of the pandemic. Exiting [the lockdown] now would be anarchy,” he said.

The comment came as infection rates were surging, with the Health Ministry saying Thursday morning that 7,668 new cases were confirmed the previous day, with positivity remaining at the high rate of 9.2 percent.

According to the data, the death toll stood at 4,609, 96 of whom had died in the previous 24 hours. More than 25% of Israel’s reported fatalities in the pandemic have died in this month alone.

Hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed on January 27, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

There were 76,331 active cases and the number of people in serious condition stood at 1,132, putting immense strain on hospitals, many of which have converted various wards into COVID-19 wards and some of which have said they cannot handle more patients at this time.

The serious cases included 388 in critical condition and 306 on ventilators, according to the ministry.

The total reported case tally since the start of the pandemic was 624,104.

Meanwhile, 226,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine were administered on Wednesday in Israel, with 2,849,353 now having received their first shot and 1,497,681 having had their second.

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