PM said mulling plan to relieve pressure on hospitals, thereby avoiding lockdown

Emergency proposal would see increase in beds and nurses, some treatment transferred to HMOs, some seriously ill patients released to home treatment

Medical staff in the coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Medical staff in the coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, on July 29, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Senior ministers are reportedly weighing implementing an emergency plan to provide relief for the hospital system and prevent a fourth national lockdown, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise rapidly throughout the country.

The proposal was discussed Sunday by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz in a meeting with government health officials, Channel 12 reported.

The three-pronged plan would see the number of hospital beds and nurses increased throughout the country; some of the responsibility for coronavirus treatment transferred from hospitals to Health Management Organizations; and a portion of the seriously ill COVID-19 patients — such as those not hooked up to ventilators — released for treatment at home.

In doing so, health officials hope they’ll be able to prevent hospitals from overflowing, even if cases continue to spike. And because much of the decision to implement a national lockdown is based on whether the hospital system can withstand the uptick in cases, the government leadership hopes that the emergency proposal will, at the very least, buy additional time before a shutdown is required, or in the best case scenario, allow ministers to shelve closure plans entirely, according to Channel 12.

Buying time for the government is particularly critical as Israel is still in the early stages of its distribution of the third dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and health officials hope that the booster shots will lead to a slowdown in cases, particularly serious ones.

With talk swirling of a possible lockdown during the coming Jewish holidays in September, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said earlier Sunday that a closure next month would take a smaller toll on the economy than during other months.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 1, 2021. (Emil Salman/Flash90)

“The fact that the economy would be less affected in some ways in September is also one of the considerations, but in the main consideration is not to get to a place that could collapse the health system,” he said.

“In my opinion, a lockdown is an effective tool. It comes with a very difficult price; it is not a tool we want to use at an early stage. In the end, every time we implemented a lockdown, morbidity went down.”

Ash said that the number of patients in critical condition was the key decider for whether to implement a lockdown.

“We have reached 1,200 critically ill patients [in the past], and we do not want to go through that [again]. If we see a slowdown in the rise in critically ill patients due to the third vaccine and the various measures we are implementing, it will give us breathing space,” he said, referring to the campaign to administer third vaccine shots to the over 60s and a slew of new restrictions that came into effect Sunday.

Channel 12 reported on Friday that Health Ministry officials have indicated that a lockdown would be necessary if and when Israel reaches 600 to 700 seriously ill patients.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, asked if he agreed with Ash, said a lockdown was a last resort and would be avoided as long as possible.

Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash speaks at his office in Jerusalem on July 13, 2021. (Flash90)

“That is also true for the education system,” he added during a tour of a new Magen David Adom rapid testing station in Jerusalem. “We will avoid disabling the education system as long as possible.”

As of Sunday evening, there were 30,111 active COVID cases in Israel, with 597 hospitalized, 363 in serious condition and 50 on ventilators.

An additional 2,916 people were diagnosed with the virus Saturday at a positive test rate of 3.86 percent, bringing the total number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic to 900,482.

Israel’s virus death toll is now at 6,542, with 7 fatalities recorded on Sunday.

The Health Ministry said that out of Israel’s population of some 9.3 million, over 5.8 million have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly 5.4 million have gotten two and 487,959 have been administered a third booster shot.

Cabinet meeting exposes split among ministers over lockdown

Meanwhile, in a Sunday meeting, government ministers fought over the prospect of a nationwide lockdown during the upcoming High Holiday period amid surging COVID-19 cases, according to leaks published on Hebrew-language media.

Reports on Channels 12 and 13 and elsewhere said Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has courted controversy by calling plans to vaccinate students in schools a “crime,” said during the cabinet meeting that the option of a lockdown must be “taken off the agenda.”

She said such talk was leading to economic instability and “people are anxious for… their livelihood,” the reports said. “We have seen the charts — it doesn’t matter whether countries imposed lockdown or not, the morbidity charts look the same.”

Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern concurred: “We need to eliminate the word ‘lockdown’ from our lexicon. We are causing people to live under threat.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett interrupts the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem to congratulate Israeli artistic gymnastics gold medalist Artem Dolgopyat at the Tokyo Olympics, as other ministers applaud, August 1, 2021 (Amos Ben-Gershom / GPO)

Hamad Amar, a minister in the Finance Ministry, noted that Australia is currently in its eighth lockdown yet cases are still on the rise, claiming that “lockdown isn’t a solution.”

Other ministers emphasized the need for a lockdown and the importance of talking publicly about a lockdown before imposing one.

“I also don’t think we should intimidate the public, but the truth is that reality is frightening,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev reportedly said. “The worst situation is not to mention the word ‘lockdown’ and then in four weeks come to a lockdown.

“We need to tell the truth — it’s in the hands of the public,” Barlev added, apparently meaning that increased public awareness and care for health regulations could stave off a closure.

Also in Sunday’s meeting, Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen was reported to join ministers’ protests against excluding synagogues from new restrictions on gatherings under the revived Green Pass system.

Starting Sunday, gatherings of any size, indoors and out, are limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus, or who present a negative COVID test. While the plan originally included synagogues and other houses of worship, these were eventually exempted in prayer services with fewer than 50 participants.

A paramedic with Israel’s Magen David Adom medical service performs a rapid COVID-19 antigenic test in Jerusalem on August 8, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“It hurt to read about the coronavirus cabinet’s decision to exclude synagogues from the Green Pass. As if we did not learn a lesson from the previous waves,” Cohen said. “There is no justification for this exception. It has also led in the past to the deaths of dozens if not hundreds of people who visited synagogues, and this also greatly harms social solidarity,” she added.

Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo responded to Cohen by saying the move was a legal instruction, and not a political decision. The exemption of religious services stemmed from an agreement between Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri, who had raised concerns over clamping religious freedom by effectively barring the unvaccinated from communal prayer.

When Cohen asked Shlomo to provide a document instructing the exemption of synagogues, he said there wasn’t one.

Bennett then reportedly broke up the argument and said the issue of synagogues would be examined “in a smaller forum,” likely referring to the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers whose portfolios deal directly with the pandemic.

Ministers on Thursday approved significantly expanding restrictions on gatherings under the Green Pass system, which will now extend to hotels, restaurants and gyms. Gatherings of any size, indoors and out, are also now limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus, or who present a negative COVID test.

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