Amid a continued rise in serious coronavirus cases, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Sunday that it was “impossible to say for sure” if the school year would open as planned on September 1, suggesting that a lockdown could be implemented over the High Holidays next month.
“We really don’t want to get to a lockdown. We’re trying all the steps not to reach that place, but in a certain situation where there is a heavy burden on the health system to the point of fear of its collapse, there will be no choice,” he said during an interview with 103FM radio.
“We do plan to open the school year on September 1, but it is impossible to say for sure. After the High Holidays, we want the education system to be fully active, with in-person studies, and we need to be prepared for that,” he said.
With talk swirling of a possible lockdown during the coming Jewish holidays in September, Ash said a closure next month would take a smaller toll on the economy than during other months.
“The fact that the economy would be less affected in some ways in September is also one of the considerations, but in the main consideration is not to get to a place that could collapse the health system,” he said.
“In my opinion, a lockdown is an effective tool. It comes with a very difficult price; it is not a tool we want to use at an early stage. In the end, every time we implemented a lockdown, morbidity went down.”
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, asked if he agreed with Ash on Sunday, said a lockdown was a last resort and would be avoided as long as possible.
“That is also true for the education system,” he added during a tour of a new Magen David Adom rapid testing station in Jerusalem. “We will avoid disabling the education system as long as possible.”
The Health Ministry released new figures Sunday morning showing a continued rise in serious coronavirus cases, with 21 new patients on Saturday bringing the total number to 348, up from 257 on Thursday.
An additional 2,886 people were diagnosed with the virus Saturday at a positive test rate of 3.83 percent, bringing the total number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic to 898,433.
Israel’s virus death toll is now at 6,535, with 16 fatalities recorded over the weekend.
The ministry said that out of Israel’s population of some 9.3 million, over 5.8 million have received at least one vaccine dose, nearly 5.4 million have gotten two and over 420,000 have been administered a third booster shot.
Ash said that the number of patients in critical condition was the key decider for whether to implement a lockdown.
“We have reached 1,200 critically ill patients [in the past], and we do not want to go through that [again]. If we see a slowdown in the rise in critically ill patients due to the third vaccine and the various measures we are implementing, it will give us breathing space,” he said, referring to the campaign to administer third vaccine shots to the over 60s and a slew of new restrictions that came into effect Sunday.
Ministers on Thursday approved significantly expanding restrictions on gatherings under the Green Pass system, which will now extend to hotels, restaurants and gyms. Gatherings of any size, indoors and out, are also now limited to those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus, or who present a negative COVID test.
When asked if the government had the outbreak under control, Ash said that “as long as the numbers are rising at a high rate I cannot say that. We are looking at it with concern… We have had a lot of infections for a long time now, so it is worrying.”
Channel 12 reported on Friday that Health Ministry officials have indicated that a lockdown would be necessary if and when Israel reaches 600 to 700 seriously ill patients.