Ahead of new minister's appointment

Health chief who led Israel’s response to pandemic announces resignation

Weighing Israel’s situation relative to other countries’, Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov says he achieved his goals in mitigating severity of coronavirus crisis

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov announced on Tuesday that he will step down from his post following the appointment of a new health minister when a new government is sworn in on Thursday.

“I am proud of my years as director general and especially in dealing with the coronavirus crisis,” Bar Siman-Tov wrote in a resignation letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman.

“I will stay the time required to appropriately pass on the baton and I wish success to the next minister and director-general.”

Bar Siman-Tov’s announcement came days after the cabinet voted, against his recommendation, to significantly ease coronavirus restrictions throughout the country.

Bar Siman-Tov has been one of the most prominent figures leading Israel’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, frequently giving media interviews and appearing alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during televised statements to announce new government directives.

As the Health Ministry’s top bureaucrat, Bar Siman-Tov was responsible for leading many of the tough early steps to restrict Israel’s public life, and was initially credited in spearheading the country’s efficient response that prevented mass infection. Litzman was largely absent from public view throughout the crisis and also contracted the virus.

In 2015 Bar Siman-Tov, an economist, was appointed by Litzman as the first non-doctor to lead the Health Ministry. Litzman himself will leave the ministry on Thursday to become minister of housing and construction.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during a press conference announcing new health basket funding at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lately, Bar Siman-Tov has come under fire for what critics inside and outside the government have said was an overly strict approach to easing nationwide restrictions and salvage the economy as infection numbers ebbed. He has been a target of criticism from unnamed ministers and senior medical personnel.

In late March, dozens of medical department and clinic managers signed a letter calling for the Health Ministry to be led by medical professionals.

He took a hardline approach in favor of broadly shutting down the country since the beginning of the pandemic and has sparred with Finance Ministry officials who warned that such drastic measures could destroy the economy.

In his letter to Netanyahu and Litzman, Bar Siman-Tov said that he had met the goals he had set at the beginning of the crisis, including providing adequate treatment for Israel’s citizens and making sure that Israel was “in the group of countries that are coping well with the crisis.

Doctors at Ichilov Hospital treat a patient in the coronavirus unit. May 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“The facts speak for themselves: There was no excess mortality in Israel as a result of the coronavirus. Thousands of lives were saved as a result of the exemplary conduct of the Israeli public and the right policies that have been in place from the beginning,” he wrote.

“It is enough for us to look to New York City or countries similar to us in Europe that have counted thousands of dead and have to prioritize patient care.”

Countries across the globe have all been hit economically but Israel’s early actions have allowed it to weather the storm and to effect a “a quick return to normal” and an “economic restoration,” he said.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Litzman commended Bar Siman-Tov “for his wonderful work” and his “many achievements in the healthcare system.”

“We were required to make difficult decisions to lead the State of Israel to victory in the fight against the coronavirus. With God’s help and thanks to [Bar Siman-Tov’s] resourcefulness and professional standards… we have managed the crisis so far, hoping that this will continue until we reach a full victory soon.”

Israel has seen 258 deaths from the virus and 16,526 infections, of whom 11,956 have recovered.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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