Health Ministry denies Gabi Barbash chosen to head drive against virus
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Health Ministry denies Gabi Barbash chosen to head drive against virus

Officials say report that former top health official, a professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine, selected as COVID czar is ‘gossip,’ say minister is vetting candidates

Prof. Gabi Barbash. (Weizmann Institute screenshot)
Prof. Gabi Barbash. (Weizmann Institute screenshot)

The Health Ministry on Sunday denied a report that Gabi Barbash, a former senior health official who has become a household name with his commentary on the coronavirus and the efforts to contain it, will be appointed to lead the national campaign against the pandemic.

The ministry said the report by the Kan public broadcaster was no more than “gossip.” It said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was vetting candidates for the job of coronavirus czar.

Barbash is a former CEO of the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and a former director-general of the Health Ministry. He has publicly criticized the government for failing to contain a resurgence of the virus, saying actions could have been taken to prevent the current situation, in which nearly 28,000 people are infected.

The Kan report did not say when the appointment would be made. There is no single figure managing the ongoing campaign, which is being led by the National Security Council and overseen by the government and a special so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers, as well as the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Since Israel lifted a lockdown that had brought daily detected infections down to low double digits, the country has been struggling to contain a second wave of the virus that has driven that figure to nearly 2,000. There has been increasing public criticism and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis, with cabinet ministers divided over how to handle the outbreak and what restrictions to impose on the public in an effort to curb the spread.

Barbash, 70, was CEO of Ichilov from 1993 to 2015, with a three-year term as director-general of the Health Ministry between 1996 and 1999. Over the past few months he has become a familiar public figure as a commentator on the coronavirus on Channel 12 news’s main evening broadcast.

People scuffle with police following a protest against the government new restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Another 210 people were diagnosed with the virus overnight, according to Health Ministry figures released Sunday, and the death toll rose by five to 406. Of the 49,575 people who have been diagnosed so far, there are 27,729 active cases and 21,440 to have have recovered from COVID-19.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, for the second weekend in a row, against government economic policies amid the resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, Barbash told The Times of Israel that the government had both failed to take preventative measures and went too far in easing restrictions in late April and early May, because it didn’t stand firm in the face of pressure from the public.

“As a result they have taken steps they shouldn’t have taken,” he said at the time.

The intensity of the second wave has largely been caused by “management issues,” according to Barbash, who added that Israel “should have responded more and earlier.”

In his view, there were three main mistakes that account for Israel’s current situation.

First, he said, authorities were too quick to allow public gatherings after the initial lockdown was lifted.

Second, not enough has been done to reduce the time it takes for virus test results to return, with it currently taking two to four days until people are informed if they’re sick. If people that patients came in contact with aren’t tracked down and quarantined swiftly, part of the potential benefit of testing is lost, he noted.

Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)

Third, he said, was that the reopening of the school system was mismanaged. When schools reopened in early May, children studied in small groups, smaller than regular classes, as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. But this so-called capsule arrangement was quickly stopped, and regular class sizes were restored.

According to Barbash, this was a major mistake and the capsule system should have been continued.

As national infection rates rise, decision makers have scrambled to contain the outbreak. On Thursday the government severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the closing of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move has been delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs) and ordered multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.

Last week Education Minister Yoav Gallant announced that when the school year opens in September it will be in a capsule format for lower grades, with older students mostly using distance learning.

The report of Barbash’s upcoming appointment came as former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily that he was willing to take on the job to head the anti-virus project.

Then IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the IDF, in Latrun, on May 7, 2018. (Flash90)

Eisenkot’s name had reportedly been floated to government decision makers earlier this year by a group of former senior military officials, scientists and high-tech people led by Tal Russo, himself a former general, the report said. Eisenkot said that although the group had asked if he was interested and he had responded that he was, no government officials ever got back to him.

Last week Ynet reported that political sources have assessed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hesitant to appoint Eisenkot, who ended his term as IDF chief in 2019, due to the possibility of him becoming a future political threat.

Roni Numa, the former head of the IDF’s Central Command, who was considered a front-runner to take on the anti-virus campaign project, last week told Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy that he was not interested in the position.

Levy’s immediate predecessor at the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, also reportedly turned down the role after a meeting with Netanyahu.

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