Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday said he had recommended reimposing restrictions on public gatherings and events, warning that Israel was at the “beginning of a second wave” of coronavirus infections.
The comments came after a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet that convened to discuss possible new regulations ended earlier in the day without decisions, and with the Health Ministry and other ministers reportedly at loggerheads over the scope of restrictions that should be implemented, if at all, as virus cases rise.
The ministerial discussion is to resume on Monday.
The number of daily infections has been steadily climbing since lockdown rules were eased in May, with over 600 new cases recorded on Thursday for the first time in months, and with infections diagnosed across the country. On Sunday night, the Health Ministry said 218 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in the past 24 hours, marking a decline.
The government and senior health officials last week maintained that a nationwide lockdown could still be avoided.
In a press conference, Edelstein said his recommendations as presented to the government were to lower the number of people allowed to attend weddings and other religious events like bar mitzvahs, as well as the number of participants in synagogue services, without specifying how many would be allowed to gather.
Event halls should be compensated by the government, he said, adding that demands voiced by their owners were “justified.”
Limitations should also be announced on general public gatherings, Edelstein said.
He said he has recommended that exams in universities be held remotely and that lessons be held via video conference whenever possible.
The health minister said that at least 30 percent of employees in the public sector should work from home, but added that he did not have an intention to limit the private sector in that regard. Still, he said employers should enable workers to work from home.
“The recommendations of course are not pleasant, but they are necessary at this stage to prevent a nationwide lockdown,” he said.
Edelstein said he had previously approved the reopening of the economy “but I stressed all the while that if we don’t adhere to all the guidelines we could reach the point of closure.”
“Unfortunately, people didn’t listen enough,” he lamented, attacking unnamed people who have allegedly slammed the Health Ministry for pushing overly sweeping and harsh restrictions.
According to leaks carried earlier by Hebrew-language media, the Health Ministry during the coronavirus cabinet meeting recommended capping the number of participants at weddings to 50 (rather than 250); requiring children’s day camps to be run using the “capsule” system of limited, constant groups of no more than 15; limiting prayers to outside areas and in groups of no more than 19 people; and banning general gatherings of more than 20 people.
Channel 13 reported that at one point during the meeting, a presentation was given by Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy and an unnamed representative of the Gertner Research Institute at Tel Hashomer Hospital.
“If the current trend continues without drastic measures, we will lose control of the pandemic and there will be hundreds of dead,” Levy said, according to ministers who attended the meeting and spoke with the outlet.
Science Minister Izhar Shay reportedly interrupted Levy, saying: “We are being dragged into irrational decisions. The data processing is lacking.”
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri reportedly criticized what he said were the Health Ministry’s “excessive demands,” adding: “No further steps are needed. You have to learn to live with the coronavirus.”
Education Minister Yoav Gallant was said to have taken particular aim at the intention of reducing the number of children allowed to attend day camps at a given time.
“I serve the country by allowing one million children to be responsibly supervised while parents go to work,” he reportedly told the ministers, whereupon he was asked to present a plan on Monday that would allow the camps to operate in a safe way without a return to small groups.
Finance Minister Israel Katz reportedly added that he opposed any decision that could hurt the economy and employment rates, and that existing regulations needed to be better enforced instead.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that contact tracing of coronavirus patients be reduced to 48 hours, and virus testing — from when a request is filed until results are completed — to 12 hours, in an attempt to break chains of infections.
In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office said that the cabinet discussed the recommendation for reducing public sector work to 30 percent from home as well as increasing enforcement.
Discussions were set to resume Monday, including on the possibility of university examinations being held remotely. Hebrew media reports said that the increase in the number of cases combined with outbreaks at educational institutions had led to inquiries on the matter from hundreds of students. In addition, it was thought that the move could reduce the chances of mass infection.
Netanyahu said earlier Sunday that Israel was facing a “rising wave” of infections.
The Health Ministry’s data on Sunday evening reported 218 new coronavirus cases since the night before, raising the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 23,639. Of the 6,265 actives cases, there are 39 in serious condition, including 22 on ventilators. Another 60 people are in moderate condition and the rest have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
The death toll remained at 318.