The Health Ministry said Monday that the persistently high infection rate must prevent planned steps to start exiting the national lockdown and reopening the economy, recommending extending the restrictions by another week.
The ministry, in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday night, said it wants to extend the lockdown to February 7, beyond its current expiration date of January 31, according to Hebrew media reports.
Extending the lockdown could possibly cause a further delay in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, with a hearing attended by the defendants having been postponed from January 13 to February 8.
Under the current lockdown orders, all nonessential businesses are shuttered, as well as the entire education system, with the exception of special education institutions.
The new recommendation came as Israel recorded the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic.
The Health Ministry said Monday evening that 68 people had died of COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours, with the total death toll standing at 4,478.
Over 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of January.
The number of new confirmed infections Sunday was 4,915, and another 6,015 were confirmed thus far on Monday, the ministry said, with the positivity rate rising to 9.3 percent of 54,408 tests conducted Monday.
There have now been a total of 605,397 coronavirus cases in the country, including 71,333 active cases. They include 1,174 serious cases, of them 420 in critical condition and 325 on ventilators.
With hospitals under increased pressure, Channel 12 reported that several medical centers have had to keep coronavirus patients in ambulances outside until space freed up in the wards.
Reporting that his hospital is now at full coronavirus capacity, Zeev Rothstein, director general of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, informed the Health Ministry Monday night that, as of Tuesday, there would be no admission of additional COVID-19 patients.
While Education Minister Yoav Gallant told local authorities on Monday to prepare for schools to reopen next week, worried Health Ministry officials have reportedly been pushing for only preschools to be permitted to reopen initially.
“In the coming days, the government will convene to decide on the date and manner of returning students to schools,” Gantz said in a letter to municipal heads.
“I do not know what the recommendation of the experts and the Health Ministry will be, in view of the morbidity and the spread of the various mutations in Israel,” Gallant continued, but added that he asks “to prepare from now on for the possibility that educational institutions will open next week.”
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, in a briefing with reporters Monday, said that the easing of the lockdown restrictions would come slower than anticipated, despite the country’s successful vaccination drive.
The British variant of the virus is circulating widely in Israel, accounting for nearly half of recent cases, according to health officials. Twenty-seven cases of the South African strain have been found in the country, in addition to four cases of a California mutation. Officials fear the variants may prove resistant to the vaccines.
The British government has said that there are preliminary indications the strain may cause 30% higher mortality.
“When they asked me two weeks ago if this is the last lockdown, I replied that it nearly certainly is. Today I’m more cautious,” said Ash.
He said the more infectious British strain, and the other strains originating in South Africa and California, “requires us to use caution when exiting the lockdown.”
“We will be forced to reopen the economy more slowly than we thought a few weeks ago, and if we are successful, we will prevent the next lockdown,” Ash said.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, meanwhile, slammed complacency in Israel regarding the pandemic, contradicting frequent recent remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implying that the country is on its way out of the crisis.
“We will have to live in the shadow of the coronavirus for a long time,” he said in the Knesset plenum Monday, during a discussion of proposed fine hikes for lockdown violations.
“I have been taught not to lie, and I don’t want to tell you that in a month everything will be open, because that is not the case,” Edelstein said. “There is an atmosphere of ‘This is it, just one more push and it’s over.’ It must be truthfully said that is not the case.”
Israel will need to be “very careful” in exiting the lockdown, he added.
Israel is currently preparing to take drastic action to block virus mutations reaching the country from abroad, with the government deciding to shut down all commercial flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main international airport, until the end of the month.
International travelers have been identified as a prime source of infections in the country.
The closure will start at midnight Monday-Tuesday and remain in effect until Sunday, January 31, when the other national lockdown measures are currently set to be eased.