Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday said Israel could return to a nationwide lockdown if immediate action isn’t taken to contain the coronavirus.
In a press conference at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, Edelstein said “we are doing everything we can” to avoid a lockdown but warned it was a possibility if other steps to curb the outbreak don’t suffice.
“If the rest of the toolbox isn’t available to us, we’ll ultimately reach a lockdown,” he said.
Edelstein didn’t elaborate on what further measures the government could take and said he’ll know if the country is headed for a lockdown in three or four days.
“If there’s a medical miracle” and infection rates plummet, “maybe we won’t get to a lockdown,” he remarked in response to a reporter’s question.
He also pushed back strongly against growing criticism of the Health Ministry’s handling of the pandemic, rejecting calls to shift some responsibility to the Defense Ministry or any other organization.
“I am responsible for the event, I have the authority, and I take upon myself all the responsibility,” he said.
Edelstein was asked specifically about Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s calls for his ministry to take on a greater role in the fight against the virus.
“Despite my seniority in the Knesset and government, at the moment I have no time for politics,” he said in an apparent swipe at Gantz, who entered the Knesset last year.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, has been lobbying for the Defense Ministry to take over the “operative” aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic.
“I believe that the Defense Ministry needs to be given the operative ability to lead the campaign on the ground because it’s our ability to help citizens,” he told Channel 12 news Wednesday. “This is what we know how to do best, better than any other body.”
In a separate interview with the Kan public broadcaster, Gantz warned Israelis the country could be heading to a lockdown.
“I want the public to know that there could be a situation in which we will need to return to a partial lockdown or a full lockdown, or to step up the restrictions,” he said.
He also said the “virus isn’t going anywhere,” echoing remarks he made Tuesday.
“It’ll remain for half a year, a year or in my estimate a year-and-a-half or even more. We need to learn how to cope with this ongoing crisis,” he said.
Before resorting to a lockdown, Channel 12 news reported the government could further limit gatherings to 10 people; close beaches, synagogues and yeshivas; reduce public transportation; and only allow restaurants to offer delivery, among other measures.
The network also reported that Netanyahu had asked Moshe Bar Siman-Tov — the former director-general of the Health Ministry — to become a “coronavirus czar” helping oversee the government’s response to the virus, but he turned down the offer.
Bar Siman-Tov, who left his post in mid-June, played a leading role in crafting the government measures to contain the virus during the initial phase of the outbreak.
The warnings of an imminent lockdown came as infection rates continued to rise in Israel, with the Health Ministry reporting 1,718 new cases on Tuesday, a 24-hour record for the country. As of Wednesday evening, 205 Israelis sick with COVID-19 were in critical condition, another all-time high.
Despite these records, Netanyahu boasted Wednesday of Israel’s “success” in containing the virus.
Netanyahu met Tuesday with ministers, medical experts and other officials to discuss further steps to limit the spread of the virus, but no decisions were agreed upon.
After the meeting, Netanyahu’s Likud party accused Gantz’s Blue and White of “undermining the necessary steps to slow down the virus and save lives” after the defense chief apparently blocked a series of new restrictions.
“This irresponsibility of Blue and White will definitely move us to a full lockdown and an unnecessary high economic price,” a senior Likud official was quoted as saying by Hebrew media. “Gantz today opposed every measure to stop the spread of corona that could have prevented us from going to a general closure.”
Blue and White responded by accusing Netanyahu of playing politics.
“Instead of giving up responsibility for managing the corona crisis, Netanyahu should let the IDF win and let the Defense Ministry oversee the efforts in the field,” a senior Blue and White official said. “This is not the time for politics or any battle that does not involve rehabilitating the economy, the health (system) and society.”