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'No one can say' if closure will end in 3 weeks -- minister

Health Ministry head: We’ll weigh easing lockdown when daily cases fall to 1,000

With over 3,000 new infections Sunday, Chezy Levy admits goal of 500 won’t happen under current conditions; Minister Ze’ev Elkin says government lacks exit strategy from closure

Police seen at the entrance to the  Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem as Israel enforces a night curfew, applied to some 40 cities and areas all over Israel which have been badly affected by the coronavirus, September 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police seen at the entrance to the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem as Israel enforces a night curfew, applied to some 40 cities and areas all over Israel which have been badly affected by the coronavirus, September 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said Monday the government could ease the nationwide lockdown when the daily coronavirus infections drop to 1,000 a day, but admitted final criteria have yet to be set.

Levy’s remarks came as Health Ministry figures showed there were 3,182 people diagnosed with the virus on Sunday.

The lockdown approved by the government on Sunday night — to begin Friday and last at least three weeks — came as the country saw virus infection rates spiral in the past few weeks, topping 4,000 new daily cases in recent days. Evening curfews had already been ordered in dozens of cities and areas last week.

The new rules will keep Israelis within 500 meters of their homes, shutter schools, malls and hotels, curb gatherings, and ban in-person dining at restaurants.

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Levy said the country will be released from the lockdown when there is a noticeable drop in morbidity rates.

“We would like to get to 500 cases a day, but it is clear that at this time that won’t happen,” Levy said.

READ: Full text: Israel’s lockdown rules, effective September 18 at 2 p.m.

“If we see a drop to 1,000 patients, and proper behavior [from the public], and a downward trend in morbidity, and at the same time stabilization in the hospital system, that will be a positive sign to consider coming out of the lockdown. We will put together criteria in the coming days,” he added.

Health Ministry director general Prof. Chezy Levy during a press conference in Jerusalem, June 21, 2020 (Flash90)

Water Resources Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the Likud party, who voted against the lockdown, said the government does not have any clear targets or exit strategy.

He warned that it is not clear if the restrictions will end after three weeks, as announced.

Elkin told Channel 12 news on Monday that “something very significant bothered me and so I voted against.”

He said that coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu had not provided information about goals for the lockdown or a strategy for lifting the restrictions while containing the infection.

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, on September 13, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I asked and did not receive from Gamzu and the people on his team clear answers about an exit strategy, the targets for which we can end the lockdown,” Elkin said. “Numbers of patients, numbers of seriously ill patients, numbers of those on ventilators, where do we want to get to? I expect from Gamzu and his team to set clear targets and take responsibility for them.”

Elkin warned that if target figures are not set, “no one will take responsibility.”

Ministers on Sunday approved a three-week nationwide lockdown over the upcoming Jewish holidays to contain the resurgent coronavirus outbreak. The lockdown, bitterly opposed by many sectors of the workforce, and castigated by the opposition as proof of government failure, will take effect at 2 p.m. on Friday, hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah.

It is scheduled to end with the Simhat Torah holiday on October 9.

“It is clear that the lockdown will continue at least until the end of Simhat Torah, but no one can say if after Simhat Torah we will come out of lockdown and what are the criteria for that,” Elkin said.

Zeev Elkin, at the time leaving his position as environmental protection minster, speaks at a ceremony the Ministry of Environmental Protection in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Nonetheless, Elkin praised the Finance Ministry which, he said, had managed to talk the government down from a lockdown plan that was estimated to cost the economy NIS 30 billion ($8.6 billion), and instead secured the approved measures, which the ministry assessed would still cost NIS 10 billion ($2.9 billion).

“The Finance Ministry acted resolutely and managed to soften the closure to the right economic format, to about a third of the damage planned in the first place,” Elkin said.

The previous lockdown in March and April, which brought down a first wave of infections to double-digit daily cases, also plunged Israel into a recession.

Finance Ministry Director-General Keren Terner Eyal told Army Radio on Monday that the number of unemployed people is expected to jump by 200,000 as a result of the lockdown.

Keren Terner Eyal, then-director general of the Transportation Ministry, attends a hearing at the Knesset, on March 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the coronavirus outbreak hit Israel, the country was put into a lockdown in mid-March that all but brought the economy to a standstill. Unemployment rocketed from around 5% to 26%, and by April, over a million Israelis were unemployed.

Although the lockdown measures were mostly rolled back in the months that followed, unemployment was still over 21% in mid-August according to the Employment Services figures, with nearly 882,000 people out of work.

According to Health Ministry figures published Monday morning, there 40,561 active virus patients in the country. There are 1,111 being treated in hospitals with 529 in serious condition and 135 on ventilators. Of the remaining patients, 214 have moderate symptoms and the rest have light or no symptoms at all.

Since the beginning of the pandemic 156,823 people have been diagnosed in Israel with the coronavirus and 115,128 have recovered from COVID-19, the disease it causes. The death toll stands at 1,126.

Speaking at a press conference Sunday to announced the lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that under the restrictions, Israelis will be limited from traveling more than 500 meters from their home except for essential needs like food and medicine. Schools will be closed starting Friday, and businesses and public sector employers will face strict limitations that he did not specify.

Supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential businesses will be allowed to remain open and deliveries will be allowed.

Netanyahu acknowledged the “high price” for the public, and the economic pain caused by the lockdown measures, but said there was no choice.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a briefing on coronavirus development in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, September 13 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Yedioth Ahronoth via AP, Pool)

Gamzu said the high rate of positive coronavirus tests showed the virus was spreading widely and said the lockdown was “the lesser of two evils.” He said he is “losing sleep” over the pandemic, and maintained that the government was forced to act after some hospitals warned of overload.

The government alone “won’t defeat the coronavirus,” said Gamzu. “Only the Israelis, only you, can defeat the coronavirus,” he said, urging everyone to keep the rules.

“If we do it wisely, we can finish this in two or three weeks,” he added, referring to the lockdown measures

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