After failing to make any decisions the previous night, the high-level coronavirus cabinet convened Monday to further deliberate a lockdown exit strategy, with ministers clashing on how soon restrictions could be lifted and Defense Minister Benny Gantz accusing the prime minister of trying to bribe citizens with cash handouts before the coming elections.
Ministers agreed during the meeting on a compromise to move up the reopening of stores, gyms and culture institutions by two days to Sunday, February 21, according to Hebrew media reports.
The agreement, which still requires official approval, was a compromise between health officials’ desire to wait for Tuesday, February 23, and the Blue and White party’s demand to start reopening this week.
All renewed business will take place according to the “Green Badge” rules, allowing only those vaccinated or who have tested negative for COVID-19 to access many activities.
At the start of the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged a slow approach to easing the lockdown, now in its sixth week, though some limitations were already lifted last week and more are to be lifted this coming Sunday.
He said that next week malls, hotels, and gyms will open according to the Green Badge system.
When Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen made the case for releasing a broader sweep of commercial operations from the lockdown already this week to ease the economic situation, Netanyahu pushed back, warning against a rise in morbidity.
“We have no safety margins because we are close to one thousand seriously ill patients,” Netanyahu said, according to leaks from the meeting. “We need to open carefully when there are economic problems; the answer is not to open up but an economic plan.”
He accused the Blue and White party of holding up a plan he proposed in January that would see cash given to all of the country’s citizens.
Blue and White chief Gantz retorted, “We are not stopping an economic plan, we are stopping vote-buying.”
There was also a confrontation between Education Minister Yoav Gallant and the Health Ministry over when schools, shuttered during the lockdown, can be reopened further. There has already been a partial reopening of the education system in some areas.
Gallant called for opening the education system for all age groups in so-called “green” and “yellow” cities, which have the lowest infection rates, and for the move to be the first step of the exit plan.
“There is no reason to leave any student at home in those cities,” he said, presenting figures indicating that the virus does not spread in the education system.
However, he was opposed by Health Ministry officials including national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who urged a more gradual, staggered opening.
The head of public health at the ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, dismissed Gallant’s data as wrong and told him that “to say that there is no connection between schools and morbidity among children is incorrect.”
During the meeting, Ash also presented a Health Ministry proposal for restricting festivities over the Purim holiday next weekend, amid concerns that celebratory gatherings could lead to fresh outbreaks.
The plan calls for barring Purim parties, parades and other mass gatherings; limiting holiday meals to immediate family members; and closing the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron to prevent celebrations there.
It also proposes allowing synagogues to reopen with up to 100 worshipers at a time in socially distanced “capsules” of 10 people, beginning this coming weekend.
The ongoing lockdown restrictions, which shuttered all nonessential businesses, came alongside a major national vaccination drive.
Over 3.9 million Israelis have received the first dose of the vaccine, and 2.5 million — over a quarter of the population — have received both shots.
However, there has been a noticeable reluctance among Israelis below the age of 50 to get the injections, including among teaching staff.
Before the start of the cabinet meeting, Edelstein lashed out at teachers who have not yet been vaccinated.
“A teacher who doesn’t vaccinate is abandoning students’ welfare and failing his job,” Edelstein tweeted.
He went on to stress that the government is seeking to pass a bill that will require all workers who have a high exposure to the public to be vaccinated, or have a virus test every two days.
“We will not compromise on public welfare,” Edelstein wrote.
The plan to mandate vaccines for some professions was reportedly raised by the Health Ministry in Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting.