Gov’t denies claim it sought ‘silence’ of hospital chiefs on extent of outbreak

PM’s office says newspaper report on deal to budget thousands of medical positions in return for medical centers hiding scale of COVID wave is ‘imaginary’; Likud demands probe

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Ata, on August 11, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends an inauguration ceremony marking the opening of a new police station in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Ata, on August 11, 2021. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

The government on Thursday denied a newspaper report claiming it “demanded silence” from hospital directors as part of a secret deal to fund thousands of new medical positions while concealing the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office was responding to a report in the Israel Hayom daily that the government demanded senior hospital officials not speak to news outlets about their ability to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients, in exchange for the government approving the hiring of more health care workers.

Bennett announced on Wednesday the approval of up to 2,000 new positions in hospitals nationwide as part of a NIS 2.5 billion ($773 million) plan to meet an expected influx of COVID patients, which health officials have reportedly predicted could reach 4,800 in a month — half of them seriously ill. The announcement came after Bennett met with the heads of the country’s hospitals to discuss the plan.

The Prime Minister’s Office called the alleged agreement “imaginary” and dismissed the report as “false and unfounded. There was never any such demand of hospital directors, neither officially nor implied, neither written nor verbal.”

“Any attempt to impeach their professional integrity belittles the best of our doctors, who are at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus day and night,” a PMO statement said.

The statement said Bennett asked the hospitals “to prepare for further coping with the disease and to explain that to the public to prevent panic and strengthen Israel’s citizens.”

“All the other things in the article simply did not happen in reality,” the statement concluded.

The government’s claim was backed up by the director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center, Ronni Gamzu, who in a post on the hospital’s official Twitter account, said “the prime minister or anyone on his behalf never said that the additional positions are in return for silence. It is a total lie.”

The opposition Likud party, led by ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, called for an immediate probe into the “bribery deal” of “budgets for silence” that Bennett allegedly offered.

Pointing to the report from Israel Hayom, which has long had a pro-Netanyahu and Likud stance, the party claimed in a tweet that the purpose of the deal was to “hide from the country’s citizens the enormity of Bennett’s coronavirus neglect.”

Hospital staff wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, on August 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Israel Hayom report cited what it said were five senior directors at major hospitals who claimed unnamed figures in Bennett’s orbit had pressured hospital chiefs to agree to the alleged arrangement. The report did not identify any of the sources.

One director told the newspaper that hospital chiefs were told that in return for the promised additional workers, they should say “we are standing up to the pressure” when the expected wave of patients hits.

Another director was quoted as saying that the plan to bring in new medical staff would only help in the future, but that in dealing with the current wave of infections, “the understanding is that we are required to make a supreme effort to absorb it, at any price… even if the new medical teams are not experienced in dealing with [seriously ill virus patients].

Another director reportedly said the expectation by the Health Ministry for hospitals to deal with 2,400 seriously ill patients “is clearly completely impossible.”

The report further cited an unnamed senior official who claimed the government made an unprecedented demand from hospitals to “drop the standard of medical treatment” in order to be able to tell the public that the state can deal with the numbers of patients without the need to resort to a lockdown. The official said that Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash warned the government that there could be “coronavirus patients dying in the streets.”

The plan to boost hospitals is an outgrowth of the government’s decision to avoid a lockdown or other heavy-handed restrictions aimed at lowering case numbers.

In announcing the plan on Wednesday Bennett defended his government’s decision to allow businesses to remain open and avoid other drastic measures despite rocketing case numbers.

Describing the plan as a “booster shot” for hospitals, Bennett said the government would immediately provide funding to add 770 beds to hospitals and bring in 2,000 more health workers, as well as 3,000 medical students.

He said the additions would double hospitals’ capacity for coronavirus patients in serious condition from 1,200 to 2,400 patients.

The country, which appeared to have put the coronavirus pandemic behind it just a few months ago after a cutting-edge vaccine drive, is now re-imposing regulations in a bid to clamp down on rising infections.

Health Ministry figures released on Thursday showed there were 5,946 new cases diagnosed the day before, the third day in a row that the number has been around 6,000. Of the 42,203 active patients, there were 421 in serious condition.

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