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Ministers said to spar over Shin Bet tracking

Health minister says Omicron COVID variant under control, no need for panic

Nitzan Horowitz justifies his backing of controversial Shin Bet tracking for those infected, says use will be carefully monitored; Israel confirms its 2nd Omicron case

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference at a vaccine center for children in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during a press conference at a vaccine center for children in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that Israel has the Omicron variant of the coronavirus “under control,” after the government slammed shut the door on tourist travel to Israel and restarted a controversial tracking of citizens by the Shin Bet security service.

The measures came as the second case of Omicron was found in the country.

“We assumed a new variant would show up. Thanks to our defensive and enforcement measures, we located this variant quickly,” Horowitz said in a press briefing. “We were among the first to find and isolate it. The matter is under control. There’s no need for fear or panic.”

Horowitz also defended the implementation of Shin Bet tracking of carriers of the variant, while expressing misgivings.

“I’ve got a big problem with the use of tracking. I prefer that the Shin Bet deal with security matters and not civilian ones,” he said, adding that “the implementation of Shin Bet tracking is very limited, temporary and has a lot of oversight.”

Horowitz explained he agreed to back the move “out of a responsibility that I have to accede to the request of the experts and make this decision.” A similar plan was used in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

Horowitz said the tracking will only be used to find those who came in contact with patients infected with the Omicron variant. He also said the continued need to use the system will be reviewed daily.

Horowitz urged vaccination, saying the shots are “critical especially in a situation where there is a new variant.”

“It is a serious mistake to wait,” he said.

Addressing parents of children who have not yet had the shots since they became available for those aged 5-11 last week, he stressed that “the vaccinations are the best means” to protect against new coronavirus variants.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis (right), head of public health services at the Health Ministry, at a press conference in Jerusalem on August 29, 2021, alongside Nachman Ash, director-general of the Health Ministry. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The Health Ministry’s head of public health, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said in the briefing that it was the rapid spread of Omicron infections in South Africa, where cases jumped from 200 to 2,000 in just 10 days, that had prompted Israeli officials to take swift action.

She said in South Africa, vaccinated people suffered only light symptoms, indicating that the shots are effective against the mutation.

“What worries us is that there is a not-insignificant population in Israel who are still not protected,” she added, putting the number at three million people, just under a third of the total population.

At the briefing, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash commented on the decision at the end of last week to declare most countries in Africa “red,” meaning Israelis are barred from traveling to them.

Israelis officials are undecided on whether or not to declare other countries that have had infections as “red,” Ash said. He pointed to Egypt in particular, where a tourist was detected as having the new variant. Among other countries being closely watched are the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, he said.

“At the moment, we are monitoring the morbidity from there and as of this stage there is no basis that there is a special morbidity requiring definition as a red state.”

Children aged 5-11 receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, at a vaccine center in Jerusalem on November 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier in the day, the Cabinet ministers approved new measures aimed at preventing Omicron from gaining a foothold in the country.

Orders included closing the borders to tourists and the use of the Shin Bet tracking. Tightened quarantine measures were also approved for Israelis returning to the country.

Four ministers voted against using the tracking: Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Economy Minister Orna Barbivai, and Eli Avidar who is a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Sa’ar had argued that if vaccines apparently prevent serious illness, there is no need to take such drastic measures, Channel 12 news reported, based on leaks from the meeting.

Avidar back up Sa’ar, saying that measures would “signal hysteria to the public.”

However, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett responded that waiting for further developments in order to make a more informed decision would lead to failure, arguing instead that a strong response would more quickly stop an outbreak in its early stages.

“The heavy artillery is only effective now,” he reportedly said.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit told ministers that “using the Shin Bet is not straightforward but we don’t have better tools.”

He said using the Shin Bet can be allowed under emergency regulations, but proper legislation will eventually be needed, according to the report.

Last year, the Knesset passed into law a bill authorizing the Shin Bet security service to use cellphone data and other sensitive information to track Israelis who contract the coronavirus and those they are in contact with. Mandelblit said that the law has since expired.

The program has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups, but has been praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

Rights groups said Sunday that they protest in the High Court of Justice against use of the tracking.

The Health Ministry has confirmed two cases of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant in Israel and has reported at least seven suspected infections, including three people who have not recently traveled abroad, raising fears of community transmission within Israel.

The confirmed cases recently returned from Malawi and South Africa, and four suspected cases returned from international trips in recent days.

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