Rebuffing warnings by coronavirus czar Nachman Ash that a rise in infection rates could lead to a fresh lockdown even before Israel’s March 23 Knesset election, government officials said Sunday that such a scenario would not occur, Kan News reported.
Unnamed sources told the network that Ash’s comments appeared intended to prevent public complacency, but insisted that no new restrictions would be announced prior to the national vote.
Health Ministry officials speaking to Channel 12 News expressed similar sentiments, saying “something extreme would have to happen” for a fresh closure prior to the Passover holiday, which begins March 27.
But according to Channel 13, Health Ministry sources did acknowledge that some limitations could be announced for the Passover holiday itself, a time when families traditionally gather in large numbers to celebrate. Last year, the government enacted a strict curfew on Passover Eve to prevent gatherings.
Speaking to Channel 12 Sunday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein also said that there would not be another lockdown before election day. Asked about Passover, Edelstein said: “I very much hope we will be able to be with the whole family — up to 20 people indoors, as is the current limitation. I am hopeful, and this is a hope with a pretty good basis… that with proper conduct [by the public], we will be able to avoid more lockdowns. I really do ask everyone to help us with this.”
Asked about the seeming disparity between Ash’s warnings and the government’s optimistic messaging, Edelstein insisted that he and the coronavirus czar “are coordinated on every move… he and I agree – as every sensible person understands – it depends on the public.”
But Edelstein did express deep misgivings about the decision to allow all Israelis to return to the country without express permits — though with a daily cap of 1,000 people, expected to increase to 3,000 later this week.
“We did it with a heavy heart. It endangers us greatly,” Edelstein said. But “we cannot prevent an Israeli citizen from coming to Israel in order to vote.”
He stressed though, that “it was not a Health Ministry initiative. It’s not something we do with the same happiness and joy as opening hotels or restaurants.”
Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return. Ben Gurion Airport has been shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens who had been stranded abroad. Entrance into the country required special permission by the government, which was granted on a case-by-case basis, ahead of each flight, by a government-run exceptions committee.
But on Saturday, the cabinet voted to nix the need for permits for returning Israelis, after criticism of the committee’s selection process and reports of impropriety and favoritism.
“We are all worried,” Edelstein said of the mood in the cabinet. “If [before] we were at readiness level 5, we may have gone down to a level 4 or 3, but we’re still very worried. I very much hope we don’t reach more lockdowns.”
Asked about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent remarks in an interview with Fox News that the COVID-19 crisis was largely over in Israel, Edelstein demurred.
“I think that if we all, as I’ve said, act correctly, we certainly can say that due to the vaccination, we will continue to live under the shadow of the coronavirus, we haven’t won by a knockout, but we will certainly be able to say that crises of the kind we’ve experienced are behind us.”