An epidemiological investigation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has been completed following his coronavirus diagnosis and those exposed to him have been notified, health officials said Friday.
The conclusions of the probe were not immediately released and it remained unclear whether the minister had flouted his office’s own safety rules, as a television report alleged on Thursday night.
The ministry said Litzman’s cellphone was tracked following his diagnosis — as the government has authorized to do to most patients — to assist authorities in locating anyone he may have come into contact with.
The investigation was meant to ascertain his whereabouts and contacts in recent days. All those he had come into close contact with were notified and told to enter self-quarantine, the ministry said.
Sources close to Litzman, who heads the United Torah Judaism party, told the Walla news site on Friday he had cooperated fully with medical officials, and denied reports that he had violated Health Ministry restrictions by participating in a group prayer on Saturday.
At the time, such prayers were allowed in open spaces “and that is how the minister behaved,” one source said.
The TV report, citing several witnesses, claimed Litzman had participated in group prayers in closed spaces on several occasions, including inside a synagogue and inside a private home.
It was not immediately clear whether the minister’s phone tracking backed up his claims, and whether it was capable of doing so to such specificity.
Following reports that Litzman had violated the rules of the ministry he heads, there have been growing calls for his dismissal. His diagnosis overnight Wednesday has forced almost all the Israeli politicians, officials and health chiefs who are leading the country’s struggle against the pandemic, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, to enter precautionary quarantine.
On Friday, Channel 13 news reported that when members of the Knesset were sworn it at the plenum last week, all were requested to have their temperature checked, but Litzman refused.
In response, Litzman’s office said the minister had his temperature checked at his office shortly before coming to the Knesset, and has had daily temperature checks over the recent period.
Litzman also refused to have his temperature taken when interviewed on Channel 12 earlier this week, sparking concerns by those in the studio that the minister was concealing virus symptoms.
On Thursday night, several opposition senior opposition lawmakers demanded that Netanyahu fire Litzman.
“If Bibi does not fire Litzman from his post tonight, this government does not have the moral authority to manage the coronavirus crisis,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid tweeted, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz wrote in a statement that “a health minister who violates the guidelines he himself signs, and acts based on corrupt considerations that seriously damage [the public’s] health, must not be allowed to remain in office for another day.”
On Friday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman said Litzman must not serve in the post in the next government. “We don’t know how the negotiations between Likud and Blue and White will end,” said Liberman. “But it is clear that Litzman cannot continue as minister of health.”
The Movement for Quality Government watchdog said that a minister who so blatantly violates his own office’s guidelines “has no place in a government… and definitely not an emergency one.”
“When the minister himself violates instructions, they no longer have any validity — moral or legally speaking — in the eyes of the public,” the group said.
In addition, a petition calling for Litzman’s ouster that went online Saturday had accumulated nearly 40,000 signatures by late Friday noon.
Litzman, 71, is said to be in good health. His wife Chava has also been infected.
Witnesses told Channel 12 on Thursday that the health minister, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, prayed at the home of a fellow member of his Gur Hasidic sect last Saturday — three days after government guidelines went into effect barring services from being held indoors. The witness said that while worshipers sought to practice social distancing, they were all together inside for over an hour and a half.
On Monday, after the guidelines had further intensified, barring any group prayer services from being held, whether inside or outdoors, Litzman was again allegedly spotted praying at a synagogue just outside of his home.
“My father prays every day at the ‘Beit Israel’ synagogue in the Ezrat Torah neighborhood [in Jerusalem] and told me that on Monday he prayed there together with Litzman,” another witness told Channel 12.
Litzman’s office flatly denied the accusations, and insisted that the minister has adhered to Health Ministry directives, including those relating to prayers.
An unnamed senior minister who spoke to the network said Litzman had “put all of our lives in danger.”
At a cabinet meeting 10 days ago, Litzman reportedly urged Netanyahu to allow synagogues to stay open. “As long as you have less than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” Litzman said, according to a leaked transcript.
But Netanyahu was adamant. “There is a need. There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection,” he said. “There is no choice.”
Unnamed officials at Litzman’s ministry on Thursday also charged that he is at least partly to blame for the spiraling situation in the ultra-Orthodox city Bnei Brak, saying that the minister’s refusal to institute restrictions on movement before the Purim holiday last month enabled mass celebrations to go ahead, which allowed the virus to spread. They also slammed his refusal to close yeshivas and mikvehs “until it was too late.”
Bnei Brak, which has the most virus cases by far per capita of any Israeli city, came under closure on Friday.
Litzman has already come under fire over the past year over allegations that he illicitly pressured officials in his office to change their psychiatric reports in order to deem alleged serial pedophile Malka Leifer unfit for extradition to Australia. Leifer has ties to Litzman’s Gur sect. Last July, police recommended that the minister be indicted in the Leifer case.