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Gantz opposes school closures as health officials push full lockdown

Urging an immediate tightening of virus restrictions., Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says Israel is ‘winning the vaccine race while losing the battle against the mutation’

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Amid calls from senior health officials to tighten the current lockdown and close all schools immediately, Defense Minister and Blue and White chair Benny Gantz said Monday that he will oppose the shutdown of the education system, despite soaring coronavirus infection rates around the country.

“This is the most important thing in my eyes, and we will do everything to keep the education system open,” Gantz told the Ynet news site.

“Most of the infections found among students did not occur inside the education system. If most of the infections are outside [of schools], then why sacrifice education?” he said.

Gantz said the so-called coronavirus cabinet would likely convene on Tuesday to discuss Health Ministry recommendations to tighten the closure. He called for prioritizing the vaccination of teaching staff, which he said would reduce their risk of being infected by students.

Last week Israel began its third national lockdown since the start of the virus outbreak, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, including schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement.

Gantz’s comments came after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Sunday that with virus infection numbers still rising despite the partial lockdown begun last week, he will now push for a total closure of the country.

During a visit to a vaccination center in the northern city of Nazareth, Edelstein warned that since current infection numbers are skyrocketing, “there is no avoiding a full-blown lockdown, including closing schools.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein gives a press conference at a coronavirus vaccine center in Tel Aviv on December 13, 2020. The slogan behind him reads: “Here, we’re beating coronavirus.” At right is Maccabi health fund head Ran Saar. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90/Pool)

The Health Ministry is demanding a full shutdown of schools, which are currently operating normally in many areas, and further limitations on businesses, with Edelstein saying such measures will be needed for a further two-week period.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

In a Monday morning tweet following Gantz’s interview, Edelstein said Israel had so far administered 1,224,000 shots of the coronavirus vaccine but “we are winning the vaccine race while losing the battle against the mutation.”

“The rise in morbidity should worry any elected official who needs to remember that his first commitment is to public health,” Edelstein added.

Israel is leading the world per capita in its vaccination campaign, but health officials say that the vaccines alone will not be enough to stem the rise in infections at this stage.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Army Radio on Monday that Israel has reached “the time to close everything.” He recommended that people stay home when possible, even before a tightening of restrictions.

“Everyone should consider today whether to leave home for work or studies. If things can be done remotely, that’s the way it should be done,” Ash said. “We want to reduce people leaving their homes for any reason. Also with school studies — it’s not a matter of studying indoors or outdoors. Public movement must be reduced.”

The closed down HaTikva market in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown to curb coronavirus infections, on January 3, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yinon Ashkenazi, the Health Ministry adviser to the coronavirus cabinet, told Army Radio, “If the situation does not change, we will reach 9,000 new infections per day on Thursday-Friday.”

On Monday morning the Health Ministry said there were 49,643 active cases in the country, with 5,135 new coronavirus cases confirmed the previous day. The death toll stood at 3,416. Last week daily cases broke through the 6,000 mark.

According to the ministry, 6.6% of tests returned positive on Sunday, the highest rate in months.

In addition to calls from the Health Ministry, a military task force forming policy to deal with the virus outbreak also urged a full lockdown due to the recent spread of a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus.

The report said the increase in the number of cases involving the new strain could lead to a further increase in the already climbing infection rates. The task force said additional incidences of the mutated variant had been identified over the weekend, but did not say how many.

Additionally, the task force said that the mutation was spreading faster among children and that stricter restrictions would be necessary to control the spread of the virus, including a complete shutdown of the education system.

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