‘Insane’: Health Ministry’s lockdown plan meets swift pushback from ministers
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2-week closure faces criticism, claims of politicization

‘Insane’: Health Ministry’s lockdown plan meets swift pushback from ministers

As details of planned restrictions emerge, finance officials, others said pressing heavily to tone down measures; Finance Ministry said to predict damage of $5.2 billion to economy

Store owners at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market scuffle with police during a protest over the continued closure of open-air markets, April 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Store owners at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market scuffle with police during a protest over the continued closure of open-air markets, April 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry’s plan for a full national lockdown faced intense pushback shortly after more of its details were unveiled Saturday, with one unnamed minister telling Israeli television the plan was “insane,” and others vowing to oppose it.

Ministers speaking anonymously to Channel 12 said they would not agree to approve the proposal in its current form, decrying the damage a closure would do to the Israeli economy even as a public outcry by business owners grew, amid threats of mass rebellion against the new restrictions.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz and Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir openly said they would oppose the plan, while the chairwoman of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee said she hoped it would be scrapped.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told Channel 12 that “there will be no negotiation” on the plan, saying there was currently no better alternative, and insisting that keeping the nation open would eventually have consequences worse than those of the fresh lockdown.

Channel 13 reported that Finance Ministry officials and others in the government were pushing heavily to significantly tone down the measures. The network said many politicians and health officials believed the planned restrictions would indeed be moderated.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein holds a press conference during a visit at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, on July 15, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The proposal is highly controversial with the public, with many business leaders threatening to defy it. Hotels are furious that they will be required to cancel reservations for the High Holidays just days in advance, having geared up staff and purchased immense quantities of supplies and food.

There also also complaints that the lockdown unjustifiably closes down the entire country rather than focusing on COVID-19 red zones, and allegations that it is politically impacted, with the government reluctant to be seen singling out ultra-Orthodox areas, which along with Arab areas, have some of Israel’s highest contagion rates.

Aspects of the plan were given preliminary approval by the ministers of the so-called Coronavirus Cabinet on Thursday, but their support was not unanimous.

Israel’s death toll from the virus was some 1,100 as of Saturday night, with some 500 current COVID-19 patients in serious condition. Newly confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been rising steadily, to a record high of some 4,000 per day at the end of the week.

The Health Ministry is proposing starting the new national lockdown at 6 a.m. Friday, September 18, and to close schools by Wednesday, September 16, according to widespread reports on Hebrew media Saturday from the multi-phase closure plan.

The first phase of the intended lockdown, lasting at least two weeks, will see most Israelis limited to traveling 500 meters form their homes, except for essential needs such as food and medicine. All non-essential shops will be closed to the public, though allowed to make deliveries. Restaurants will be allowed to operate with takeout and deliveries only.

Police at a temporary checkpoint on Road 1 outside Jerusalem, on April 8, 2020, as a Passover-eve curfew, aimed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, took effect. (Jonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30 percent capacity, or 10 employees — the higher of the two. Exceptions will be made for certain essential operations.

Channel 12 reported that the 500-meter restriction was added against the better judgement of coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who believed it was unnecessary, but was demanded by politicians who believed it was psychologically necessary to make it clear to the public that things were not “business as usual”.

Education Minister Yoav Gallant said Saturday he opposed closing schools before the national lockdown begins, and said they should shut down on Friday along with everything else.

“A functioning education system is necessary to every child and every family, and is a basic condition for the economy to function,” he said.

Public prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be allowed under certain limitations that have yet to be finalized, reports said, but the ministry is suggesting prayers in groups of 20 in open areas. In areas with high infection rates, indoor prayers will be held in groups of 10, with the number of groups dependent on the size of the space. In other areas, indoor prayers will be held in groups of 25, with the number of groups dependent on the size of the space.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem, on May 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Ministry assessments say the cost to the country’s economy of the holiday closures will amount to NIS 18 billion ($5.2 billion) at the very least, Channel 12 said.

Economy Minister Peretz told Channel 12 he would vote against a full lockdown in the cabinet, saying he supported nighttime closures, as part of which 80% if the economy would remain open.

“Hundreds of thousands of employees and independent business owners are in existential anxiety… If we limit we must compensate. I’ve appealed to the prime minister to demand the immediate formation of a team to determine a compensation plan that will be clear to everyone.”

Tourism Minister Zamir said in a statement that while soaring cases required drastic action, a full lockdown was “too extreme a step, with economic consequences that entire industries won’t recover from.”

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, a Likud maverick whose coronavirus committee has several times stymied ministerial restrictions related to the battle against COVID-19, also said the government was only taking such an “extreme step” because it hadn’t dealt “bravely” with infection hotspots.

Likud Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton. (screenshot)

“The public loses faith when [leaders] don’t show the true picture, and when they don’t tell it why they’re actually taking these steps,” she told Channel 12.

Shasha-Biton said she hoped ministers would scrap the planned lockdown. “The hospitals are not going to collapse tomorrow morning,” she said. Rather than closing down the whole country, she said, the focus should be on bolstering the health care system so that it is better able to deal with the crisis. She cited cases of what she said were hospitals trying to recruit extra staff and being denied the budgets to do so.

The second phase of the lockdown is slated to begin around October 1, subject to developments, and to last around two weeks. It is being designated as an interim “tightened restraint” period, during which outdoor gatherings for the entire country will be capped at 50 people and indoor gatherings at 25. Transit between cities will not be allowed. Leisure and entertainment activities will remain closed. Business places will still be barred from receiving customers, and workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30%-50% capacity.

A police officer writes up a fine for a woman who was not wearing a mask in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In the third and final phase, the government will reimpose the so-called “traffic light” plan, which addresses each city and town based on its morbidity rate.

With the country facing its second national lockdown and the government’s pandemic policies being widely perceived as disorderly and at times random, many businesses have vowed in recent days to defy closure orders, saying they will not survive a new shutdown. Meanwhile, top business leaders warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday that a new lockdown would be disastrous to the local economy.

Reports have indicated hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of business owners could refuse to shut down if closure orders come, being unable to withstand the financial burden of a further lockdown. Business owners have said promises of compensation down the road are irrelevant, and that they will refuse to shut their doors unless they receive government aid in advance.

Channel 13 reported that the Manufacturers Association of Israel, the Chamber of Commerce and other business bodies wrote in a letter to the premier that a new lockdown would cause a further wave of unemployment and bring about “an ‘economic coronavirus’ whose effect will be far more destructive than the medical coronavirus,” and warned that the effects of the harm to the economy could be felt for a decade.

They said “the expected steps will cause mortal injury needlessly… businesses and the economy must not be closed down. We must learn to live alongside the coronavirus while maintaining [health] regulations and aggressive enforcement.”

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