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Health minister pans ‘baseless’ attacks on top expert amid reports of dispute

With cabinet, health experts said to disagree on next COVID steps, Horowitz defends Alroy-Preis’s professionalism; education minister given panic button due to threats against her

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Friday he gives top health official Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis his full backing, as she faces ongoing attacks by figures inside and outside the government.

Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s chief of public health services, has in many respects become the face of the government’s pandemic policies. She has long been vilified in anti-vaxxer and pandemic-skeptic circles, but has also faced anonymous attacks from within the cabinet for her supposed alarmist stance in deliberations.

On Friday morning Channel 12 quoted an unnamed senior government source as accusing Alroy-Preis of “crossing every line with her conduct,” claiming she “enjoys the media attention and is spreading fear and panic throughout TV studios.” The official claimed the top expert has become “addicted to doomsaying.”

Later in the day Horowitz and ministry Director-General Nachman Ash issued a joint statement in which they stressed Alroy-Preis has their “full backing” as she “works day and night” on the fight against the pandemic. While declaring openness to criticism, the two said they would “not be silent in the face of personal, baseless attacks on devoted employees.”

Horowitz added separately that “attacks on public servants are reprehensible and should be excised from Israeli political discourse.”

Tensions between health officials and cabinet members have reportedly risen in recent days, as the former have warned of the need for further restrictions on the public, while the latter have resisted.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz visits Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, on August 24, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Channel 12 quoted a second unnamed official, a cabinet minister, as saying health officials’ demands for fresh curbs seemed like “a demand to cover their asses.”

“There’s no relation between the problem and [their] solution. The problem is the unvaccinated. The solution is not to restrict the vaccinated. It also hurts motivation for [people to get] the Green Pass. We don’t understand it.”

Alroy-Preis has faced threats from some members of the public over her positions and work, and in August said she’s been given a panic button by authorities to alert police of any potential danger, following continued harassment and threats by anti-vaxxers.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton told Channel 12 on Friday that she has also faced threats for her part in government policy, and has herself been given a panic button.

The minister said that, with children set to return to schools en masse next week following the end of the Jewish holiday period, the focus was on allowing studies to move forward as fully as possible.

Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks at a press conference at the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, in preparation for the opening of the school year nationwide, on August 31, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The cabinet made a decision to manage a routine and live alongside the coronavirus, and part of that is opening the school year on time,” she said. “The logic according to which there will be a rise in morbidity once we start the school year, that didn’t exactly happen, at least not according to the data we have since September 1.”

With Israel pushing forward with its vaccination campaign, and particularly booster shots for most of the population, Shasha-Biton admitted that she herself had not seen Israel’s agreements with vaccine-maker Pfizer and did not know whether Jerusalem was committed to exclusivity on the vaccine, amid indications it may not be the most effective shot currently in the market.

“I think the agreement should be opened up [to the public],” Shasha-Biton said. “I think we should hold discourse transparently. I am certain that holding debates in such a manner will lead more people to cooperate and will lower fears to an extent.”

She said she’d raised the matter with top officials several times, but “I was told there are legal issues that prevent it.”

According to reports Friday, during Thursday deliberations with health officials, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke against further limitations on gatherings, despite high morbidity. The Walla news site reported that Bennett’s decision was opposed by Health Ministry officials.

At the meeting, Bennett cast doubt on a forecast predicting morbidity could keep rising and questioned why gatherings that already require a Green Pass should be further restricted, Army Radio reported, citing unnamed participants in the meeting.

Under Green Pass rules, entry to businesses and events is limited to those with proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19 or a negative test result.

People, some wearing face masks, shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on September 20, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During Thursday’s meeting, a government advisory panel reportedly urged ministers to reconsider their approach to the pandemic, calling for a policy putting greater emphasis on reducing serious morbidity and urging more limitations on gatherings.

But Hebrew University researchers also presented a study predicting the number of new cases will decline over the next 10 days, followed by a drop in serious cases as updated Green Pass rules mandating booster shots take effect next month.

The researchers also questioned the benefit of limiting events where entry is already restricted to those with a Green Pass.

Israel’s fourth wave of infections has seen record numbers of daily cases, but hospitalizations have remained lower than in past outbreaks, which experts attribute to the country’s high vaccination rate

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