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Government extends lockdown until January 31 amid soaring virus rates

Ministers also approve new regulations requiring all those entering the country to present a recent negative virus test or face a fine

View of the closed-down stores in the Givatayim Mall during a nationwide lockdown, January 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
View of the closed-down stores in the Givatayim Mall during a nationwide lockdown, January 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Government ministers on Tuesday voted to extend the national lockdown by an additional 10 days, as Israel saw its highest-yet coronavirus infection rates since the start of the pandemic.

The lockdown, already in its third week, was due to end automatically on Thursday night had an extension not been issued. Following the unanimous cabinet decision, is it is now scheduled to end on January 31.

In light of recent high infection rates, extending the closure was also supported by ultra-Orthodox ministers who had previously been hesitant to apply lockdown measures due to the impact they have on prayer services and other aspects of the community’s daily life.

In addition, ministers also approved a fine of NIS 2,500 ($772) for anyone who arrives in the country without a recent negative virus test, according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Under the new policy, the test must be conducted within 72 hours before landing in Israel.

Police at a temporary roadblock by the beach promenade in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown. January 16, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had urged continuing the lockdown beyond its planned end date this week. Cabinet members from the Blue and White party reportedly conditioned their support for such a measure on increased enforcement of closure orders and limiting the extension to no more than 10 days, as well as other terms.

Criticism has intensified over alleged discrimination in the enforcement of the current lockdown restrictions, with authorities handing out significantly fewer fines in ultra-Orthodox areas, where the outbreak has been disproportionately intense and where there are increasing reports of widespread flouting of the measures.

The tightened rules have been in effect for 12 days.

“This might not be popular nor convenient during elections, but this is what we need to decide today,” Netanyahu told ministers over videoconference at the start of the meeting. “It’s a lot easier to ignore the incredible jump in morbidity and just open everything, but this will cost many lives.”

He added that “this is a difficult decision for many Israeli citizens but a last effort is needed here, a joint effort by all of us to get out of the coronavirus [pandemic] and save lives.”

Netanyahu referred to a mass wedding in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak Monday night that violated lockdown rules, describing it as a “bloodletting.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen with the two millionth Israeli to get the coronavirus vaccine, in Ramla, January 14, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, backed by health officials, wanted to lengthen the lockdown by another two weeks, Blue and White ministers were said to insist on capping the extension at no more than 10 days, according to leaks from the meeting reported by Hebrew media.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who leads Blue and White, demanded there be significant enforcement in areas where the lockdown is being violated. He laid down further conditions for agreeing to extend the lockdown, which included limiting entry and exit to the country and that school children aged 16-18 be vaccinated, to ensure the bagrut matriculation exams are held as planned. The current lockdown shuttered all non-essential businesses as well as the education system.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash had recommended extending the lockdown by two weeks until February 4, the station said. He reported that the basic reproduction number, a key indicator of the virus transmission, was dropping but said it would take another few days for the full effect of the lockdown to be felt.

According to Channel 12, Ash would not commit to targets on when to lift the lockdown, angering some ministers.

The head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, whose organization is advising the government on the virus outbreak, backed up Ash’s assessment that the impact of the lockdown on the virus outbreak is still not evident. He also warned that despite Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign, there are 300,000 Israelis over the age of 60 yet to be inoculated.

Ash further told ministers that health officials estimate the British coronavirus variant is behind 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks. The mutated strain of the virus is more infectious, though not considered more deadly.

The head of public health at the ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said there is no indication so far that the strain is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine that Israel is using in its rapid mass vaccination drive, which has so far given the first of the two-dose inoculation to over a quarter of the country’s population, Channel 12 reported.

Defense and Justice Minister Benny Gantz arrives at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem, on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The mutated strain of the virus from Britain and another first detected in South Africa are behind the move for new regulations requiring arrivals in the country to present a negative virus test, taken in the country of departure within the previous 72 hours.

Anyone who turns up without such a test, including Israelis or those who lose the document on their way, will be fined NIS 2,500. Air crew who are scheduled to spend more than 72 hours in Israel will be denied entry if they do not have a valid negative test.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday that a record 10,051 infections were confirmed the previous day, bringing the country’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 565,629, including 82,652 active cases. The rate of positive tests passed the 10 percent mark for the first time in over three months, with 10.3% of the over 100,000 tests coming back positive.

Israel has administered the first dose of the vaccine to over 2.2 million, with more than 400,000 receiving the second dose as well.

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