Top Israeli health officials waited weeks before starting to hold discussions on the coronavirus outbreak in China after early news of the infection began coming in, a report said Tuesday, citing meeting schedules obtained via a freedom of information request.
The daily planners showed that former health minister Yaakov Litzman was largely absent from the early discussions of the virus, and former Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov almost completely neglected the issue of epidemiological investigations, a critical tool in gaining control of the outbreak.
Even though the law mandates it, Litzman’s and Bar Siman-Tov’s work diaries were only made public after the Movement for Freedom of Information took the matter to the High Court of Justice, according to the report by the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
The diaries show that while the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned about the outbreak in Wuhan as early as December 31, 2019, and within days cases were discovered outside China, no meeting relating to it was held within the Health Ministry until January 24.
That meeting, a conference call, included Bar Siman-Tov, his deputy Itamar Grotto and the then-head of public health Siegal Sadetzki. Another meeting was held two days later.
Litzman first became involved on January 27 when a meeting took place in his office. Three days later he made the decision to ban entries from China.
The first time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in discussions of the coronavirus was on February 1, when Bar Siman-Tov spoke with him for 30 minutes. A day later, the premier held another half-hour discussion with top health officials.
But the government only realized the scope of what was happening in mid-February, when meetings gradually dealt more and more exclusively with the virus outbreak.
The diaries show Grotto had been sidelined from the start amid reported disputes with Bar Siman-Tov, while Sadetzki — lower-ranked than Grotto — participated in most meetings. Grotto’s involvement only grew in April.
The report said Litzman’s diary wasn’t as detailed as Bar Siman-Tov’s, but the partial insight it gives indicates he didn’t take a central role in preparing for the crisis.
Between January 24 and the end of February, Litzman had 167 events in his daily planner, only 10 of which had to do with the coronavirus, the report said.
More than 50 of the events were private or political, including 30 family events.
Bar Siman-Tov’s diary shows only two meetings relating to epidemiological investigations, both in March, while the matter later was not on the agenda. The renewed outbreak in May and the loss of control over it is largely attributed to the lack of adequate epidemiological investigations, coronavirus tests and an adequate contact-tracing mechanism.
Litzman’s office said he “took an active and continuous part in all coronavirus discussions and participated personally in most.” The statement said he couldn’t participate while he was infected with the virus himself, and that “large parts of the written schedule aren’t up to date” because of last-minute changes.
Litzman allegedly broke his own ministry’s guidelines on social distancing by attending group prayer services in the days before he was diagnosed. His office denied the accusations.
The Health Ministry said Israel “was one of the first countries in the world to identify and take determined action against the coronavirus,” saying the initial China travel ban came shortly after the WHO first said the virus is transmitted from human to human, and helped contain the first wave of infections.
The ministry said discussions and phone calls were held regularly from early January and that the diary “naturally doesn’t reflect the hundreds of phone calls and discussions held at the time.”
Litzman, Bar Siman-Tov and Sadetzki have all left their posts in recent months.
Though Israel gained control of the initial outbreak, the virus has surged since late May and there are 1,000-2,000 reported infections every day.
Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the virus resurgence, which has come as new daily virus cases around the world have also reached record highs.
Earlier this month, amid the spike in infections, the cabinet passed a raft of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues; reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation; hiked fines for not wearing face masks; and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.