Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday insisted a national lockdown is needed to curb the continued rise in new coronavirus cases, telling ministers he won’t introduce an alternative plan to contain the pandemic if they reject his multi-stage proposal that would see sweeping restrictions over the upcoming holidays.
A number of hospital chiefs, meanwhile, said that while they are indeed faced with a growing number of patients in serious condition from COVID-19, they are not close to being overwhelmed and an immediate lockdown isn’t needed to protect the health system.
Speaking during a cabinet meeting, Edelstein said that while he has sought to work with businesses to keep the economy open, there hasn’t been “aggressive, effective and unforgiving enforcement” of the Health Ministry’s coronavirus rules.
“There is no choice but to impose a lockdown… This is a difficult day for the country. But there is no other choice but this proposal,” he said, according to leaks from the meeting.
“Therefore, I would like to be clear — with the exception of various cosmetic changes, I will not permit negotiations over the plan,” Edelstein continued. “I am saying this clearly at the start of the discussion: if the plan is not accepted, I will pull it and I won’t bring forth an alternative plan. The coronavirus is not a political issue and not a matter of populism. It’s a matter of life and death.”
Likud ministers Yuval Steinitz and Ze’ev Elkin, along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, voiced support for a full lockdown, according to Channel 12 news.
Finance Minister Israel Katz, however, came out against a nationwide lockdown, warning of the economic repercussions.
The plan being deliberated by the government was approved by the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Thursday, though not unanimously, with several ministers saying they would vote against the proposal or demand changes. Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman announced his resignation ahead of Sunday’s meeting in protest of the planned lockdown.
“[Coronavirus czar] Prof. Ronni Gamzu turned to us and, together with the experts and the heads of the health system, in effect waved the red flag regarding the ability of the health system to deal with the challenges that are coming toward us, and the need to take the necessary steps as a result,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting.
Despite warnings that the health care system could soon be overwhelmed, most of the hospital administrators who took part in the meeting said they were able to handle the increase in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization and that there was no need for a national lockdown on their account.
“The trend has indeed changed since mid-August but this isn’t a collapse of the hospitals. There’s unnecessary anxiety. A full lockdown isn’t required,” Eitan Wertheim, the head of Belinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, was quoted as saying by the Ynet news site.
In the minority among hospital leaders was the head of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, who called for a lockdown.
“I don’t use the term collapse, but the situation requires an immediate lockdown. We have over 900 workers in quarantine, 100 last week… I don’t see a way of getting out of this without a lockdown,” Michael Halbertal said.
Ministers Amir Ohana and David Amsalem, both members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, pressed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit during the meeting to limit the ongoing protests against the premier.
“Take responsibility for the disease, because of the public’s trust has been damaged,” Amsalem said, according to Ynet.
Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers have repeatedly claimed the weekly protests outside the Prime Minister’s Office and elsewhere across the country are a major source of infections, though a Health Ministry official told Knesset members last week that as of late August not a single COVID-19 case had been traced to the demonstrations.
Mandelblit, who has faced regular criticism from Netanyahu and the premier’s allies over his decision to indict the prime minister in a series of graft cases, said it was up to the police to decide.
Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata of the Blue and White party backed Mandelblit’s position, while Gamzu said protests should be limited like other gatherings.
Under the Health Ministry proposal, the new national lockdown will begin at 6 a.m. Friday, September 18. While the plan called for closing schools on Wednesday, September 16, ministers agreed during Sunday’s meeting that schools would only close on Friday.
The first phase of the intended lockdown, lasting at least two weeks, will see most Israelis limited to traveling 500 meters from their homes, except for essential needs such as food and medicine.
All non-essential shops will be closed to the public but will be allowed to make deliveries. Restaurants will be allowed to operate with takeout and deliveries only.
Workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30 percent capacity, or 10 employees — the higher of the two. Exceptions will be made for certain essential operations.
Channel 12 reported that the 500-meter restriction was added against the better judgement of Gamzu, who believed it was unnecessary, but was demanded by politicians who believed it was psychologically necessary to make it clear to the public that it was not “business as usual.”
Public prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be allowed under certain limitations that have yet to be finalized, reports said, but the Health Ministry is suggesting prayers in groups of 20 in open areas.
Finance Ministry assessments say the cost to the country’s economy of the holiday closures will amount to NIS 18 billion ($5.2 billion) at the very least, Channel 12 said.
The second phase of the lockdown is slated to begin around October 1, subject to developments, and to last around two weeks. It is being designated as an interim “tightened restraint” period, during which outdoor gatherings for the entire country will be capped at 50 people and indoor gatherings at 25. Transit between cities will not be allowed. Leisure and entertainment activities will remain closed. Business places will still be barred from receiving customers, and workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30%-50% capacity.
In the third and final phase, the government will reimpose the so-called “traffic light” plan, which addresses each city and town based on its morbidity rate.
With the country facing its second national lockdown and the government’s pandemic policies being widely perceived as inconsistent and at times random, many businesses have vowed in recent days to defy closure orders, saying they will not survive a new shutdown. Meanwhile, top business leaders warned Netanyahu on Friday that a new lockdown would be disastrous to the local economy.
The proposal is highly controversial with the public, with many business leaders threatening to defy it. Hotels are furious that they will be required to cancel reservations for the High Holidays just days in advance, having geared up staff and purchased quantities of supplies and food.
There are also complaints that the lockdown unjustifiably closes down the entire country rather than focusing on COVID-19 red zones, and allegations that it is politically impacted, with the government reluctant to be seen as singling out ultra-Orthodox areas, which along with Arab areas, have some of Israel’s highest contagion rates.
According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 1,108 Israelis have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with a record 513 people in serious condition and 206 in moderate condition.
There were 2,715 new cases confirmed on Saturday — rates are typically depressed over the weekend. Newly confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been rising steadily, to a record high of some 4,000 per day at the end of last week.