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Virus czar: Talks after Passover on wearing masks outdoors

Health Ministry chief: Cabinet squabbling endangers vaccine drive

Chezy Levy says cancellation of government meeting undermines efforts to protect public from new infections; Katz: Budget needed for boosters and potential inoculation of kids

People receive a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a mobile vaccine station on the beach in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
People receive a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a mobile vaccine station on the beach in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The director-general of the Health Ministry Chezy Levy warned Monday that the cancellation of a cabinet meeting, which was to have approved budgeting for further coronavirus vaccines, could undermine the country’s ability to properly prepare against further infections.

The special cabinet meeting was called off amid fresh squabbling between the Likud and Blue and White parties over the appointment of a permanent justice minister, delaying approval of a NIS 7 billion ($2.1 billion) spending package on coronavirus vaccines.

Levy said that the budget needed to follow through on negotiations with companies to secure vaccine supplies through 2022 was needed, in light of the uncertainty over how long the inoculation remains effective and to ensure Israel receives any future new vaccine boosters against virus mutations.

“There is a concern because the meeting is not being held to approve the needed budget to continue the battle against the coronavirus,” Levy told Army Radio.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy speaks in Jerusalem on February 10, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

He called on ministers to convene to approve the budget or at least deliberate it, “in order that we can continue to take care of public welfare.”

The cabinet meeting would have been the first since March 23 elections, the fourth in two years, which were called after the Likud-Blue and White unity government collapsed in December.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who heads Blue and White, has been serving as interim justice minister since Avi Nissenkorn resigned from the post earlier this year. With his term set to expire at the start of April, Gantz has been demanding a permanent appointment. Amid Likud’s refusal, Blue and White aborted the meeting, drawing a rebuke from Likud and its ministers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Yonatan Sindel, David Cohen/Flash90)

Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud on Monday urged Gantz to allow the meeting to go ahead to approve the budget.

“If it is not approved, there is a fear that Israel will lose its ability to purchase vaccines for the rest of the year and for the next year, including the ability to vaccinate children after the end of trials and approval by the competent authorities,” Katz said.

Katz urged separating politics from the need to address health and economic issues during the transitional period until the next government is formed.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash also raised his concerns over the budget approval delay telling the Kan public broadcaster the vaccine market is “complicated.”

“The whole world is chasing after vaccines that there are a shortage of, and therefore it is important to lay hands on them as soon as possible,” he said.

Ash also revealed that a discussion about ending face mask usage would be held after the ongoing Passover festival which ends on Saturday.

He said that from a professional point of view, the masks “are far less significant in open spaces. We still want people in groups and in close spaces to wear masks.”

People at a shopping center near Zichron Ya’akov, on March 29, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

However, the Health Ministry’s Levy rejected the idea that face masks could soon be done away with.

“I don’t think so,” Levy responded during his interview with Army Radio, and noted that there are still 2.5 million children and another million people from age 16 and up who are not vaccinated.

The budget hold up came as Health Ministry figures showed that so far 5,221,482 Israelis have had at least the first of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination and 4,712,877 — over half the population — have also had the second.

Israelis walk in Jerusalem on March 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The vaccination program, alongside a recently rolled back lockdown, has been credited with bringing down infection rates, dropping positive virus tests to around 1.2%. On Sunday, the first day of Passover, just 128 people were diagnosed with the virus, and while testing rates are usually lower over weekends and on holidays it was still the lowest figure since June last year.

In a further indication of shrinking infections, the virus’s basic reproduction number, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, was given as 0.55. Any figure under 1 means the outbreak is abating. The figure represents the situation as of 10 days ago due to the incubation period.

Since the start of the pandemic, 832,012 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and there are 9,248 active patients, ministry data showed. The death toll reached 6,194.

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