Health minister urges more enforcement in discussion of contentious virus law
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Health minister urges more enforcement in discussion of contentious virus law

As complaints mount even about softened version of bill, Edelstein presents poll showing 80% of Israelis back handing police more power

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Flash90)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

The so-called coronavirus cabinet convened Monday to discuss a controversial bill that would introduce emergency regulations aimed at tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, amid a steady uptick in infections since the country has started to reopen.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein presented a poll he said showed that 80 percent of the public supported increasing enforcement of distancing and hygiene rules.

Edelstein noted during the meeting that 800 new cases were identified in the past week, as opposed to about 300 infections confirmed in the preceding two weeks combined.

“We can’t stay complacent in the face of this number,” he told the forum, composed of relevant ministers tasked with combating the outbreak.

The new bill has been denounced by critics as giving the state sweeping powers that would infringe on personal rights, with little oversight.

It is a softened version of previously proposed legislation that drew widespread outrage for giving police the right to enter homes with no warrant, and awarding some other powers to the government to suspend normal regulations in an emergency.

The measure allowing police ingress into private homes is missing from the new version, which aims to formalize the cluster of emergency regulations that were applied during a coronavirus lockdown that began in mid-March and was gradually lifted from the end of April.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

“Police must resume strict enforcement [of social distancing rules] in shopping malls, buses, trains, restaurants, event halls and everywhere to return discipline to the public and enable us to keep opening up the economy,” Edelstein said.

Referring to complaints by health maintenance organizations (HMOs) that their coronavirus labs were severely understaffed, Edelstein called for at least 200 employees to be hired to help handle an increasing number of daily tests, which has reached a high of 16,000.

“The solution has various aspects,” he said. “More opening of the economy, including trains in an outline agreed with the Transportation Ministry, but combined with as many tests as possible, a significant uptick in enforcement and more explanations to the public.”

A delay was announced Sunday in the resumption of trains, which had been scheduled for Monday.

After the cabinet review, the bill will be passed on to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, where it is expected to receive government backing before making its way through the Knesset.

Among other measures, the bill allows for declaring a health emergency for 30 days, though the Knesset will be able to cancel that state of emergency at any time.

It also empowers the government to apply lockdowns and order people into quarantine, as well as giving police the power to disperse public gatherings under the threat of fines or even prison sentences, though the right to demonstrate is preserved.

Social distancing in public places can also be enforced and businesses that do not heed orders can be closed down. Neighborhoods and communities can be declared a restricted zone for up to one week, unless the relevant Knesset committee approves an extension.

Any regulations introduced as emergency measures by using the law will need Knesset approval within a week. Under the terms of the bill, the government commits that when applying emergency orders it will take into consideration those with special needs.

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