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Government to bankroll COVID isolation days for salaried workers, self-employed

Finance Ministry says compensation package, estimated at up to NIS 250 million ($80 million), to address high morbidity rates forcing people into quarantine

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

People, some wearring face masks, walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People, some wearring face masks, walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, on January 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Finance Ministry approved a compensation plan for workers on Tuesday that would see the state fund most days of isolation — following a COVID-19 infection or exposure to a confirmed case — for both salaried employees and those who are self-employed.

Self-employed workers will be eligible for NIS 430 ($138) daily for four of the days of mandatory quarantine, starting from earlier this month. They can request retroactive compensation for up to three days of isolation for the period between July-December 2021, the ministry said.

Salaried employees will be eligible for payment from their first day of isolation, unlike previously when the first day of quarantine was at the worker’s expense, with the rest covered by the state for up to 75% of the worker’s salary, depending on the size of the business.

The Health Ministry earlier Tuesday said Israelis who test positive for COVID-19 will only have to quarantine for a week, down from 10 days, providing that the last three of those seven days are asymptomatic. Those still displaying symptoms throughout the week will be required to isolate for 10 days, in line with the current quarantine policy for anyone infected with coronavirus.

The compensation package, estimated at up to NIS 250 million ($80 million), will apply to multiple individual rounds of isolation, if needed, over the coming month, according to the announcement Tuesday.

The move came amid a record surge in morbidity that is sending an increasing number of people into quarantine, leading to concerns of economic fallout as many are unable to work because they are sick, quarantined, or need to care for a child unable to attend school.

The highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant is currently sweeping the country, driving up infection rates to record highs but with a peak still ahead, health authorities have said.

Virus czar Professor Salman Zarka said Monday that the peak is about 3-5 weeks away and warned that a “significant lockdown” may have to be considered.

A Magen David Adom worker performs a COVID-19 rapid antigen test in a drive-through complex in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a press briefing Tuesday, a Finance Ministry official said that Israel was “in the midst of a fifth wave [of the coronavirus],” and “the next month will not be simple.”

“The government is continuing with its policy of ‘living with the corona[virus]’ with no lockdowns. This has proven itself: The economy is running. We are back to pre-pandemic levels for unemployment. In 2021, we saw growth of over 7%.”

In early December, an OECD report said that activity rebounded strongly in 2021 and GDP was projected to grow robustly by 6.3% in 2021. The OECD forecast that Israel’s GDP would grow 4.9% in 2022 and 4% in 2023.

A Dun & Bradstreet report last month said Israel’s economy grew by 7% in 2021, beating out a global average of 5.9%.

“The data we are seeing is similar to the previous wave [the Delta wave] and unlike the data in previous lockdowns. There is no need to have employees go on [early] retirement or to put them on unpaid leave,” explained the official, unlike during previous waves.

“We are seeing a decrease in business activity but not by much. There is a problem with more and more people having to isolate and this is solvable,” he said. According to Finance Ministry estimates, the average period an individual spends in isolation, assuming they are not infected, was four days.

Police officers check cars at a checkpoint during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, on January 10, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

On Monday, the Bank of Israel estimated that the daily cost of isolation to an average worker was NIS 273 ($88).

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron told the Knesset Finance Committee Monday that the current wave’s overall cost to the economy was estimated at up to NIS 2.5 billion ($800 million) should there be a sustained wave of daily infections of at least 45,000 for up to 20 days.

Israel had been enjoying a bounce-back of the economy in the second half of 2021, having weathered the fourth wave — the Delta wave — of the pandemic over the past summer without lockdowns, quickly tightening some restrictions, launching a booster vaccination campaign, and approving vaccines for kids aged 5-11.

Tight lockdowns marked the previous government’s approach, with many businesses and places of work shut to clients, many workers moving to work-from-home, pupils and students learning online, gatherings banned and people at times instructed to not venture past 1,000 square meters (10,763 square feet) of their places of residence.

The previous government, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, also approved different forms of aid and grants to hard-hit businesses, a move Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman has said he was hoping not to repeat.

In a press briefing Monday, Liberman dismissed the reported suffering of some business owners, particularly restaurateurs, some of whom have reported that their profits have been halved.

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said later Tuesday that despite skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in the country, he was working to ensure the economy stays open.

“Omicron is a variant that infects more than all the other variants put together,” said Bennett in a live press conference ahead of a scheduled meeting of the COVID cabinet on Tuesday evening.

But Bennett said his goal was that “the market will stay open as much as possible and the economy will still be working. I don’t want to see people losing their jobs, closing their businesses. he said, calling on people to work from home as much as possible

“Lockdowns don’t work,” said Bennett, pointing to other countries with lockdowns that also have skyrocketing cases.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, on January 11, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He insisted the government was providing “an answer” for businesses affected by the current wave. Unlike the last government, he said, he’s not going “to mortgage our children’s future” by giving out money indiscriminately.

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