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Health Ministry said pushing for delay in easing virus restrictions

Nevertheless, Netanyahu and health minister reportedly reach deal behind education minister’s back on reopening grades 7-10 next week

Israelis shop at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis shop at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, on March 1, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Health Ministry was pushing to delay a further rollback of coronavirus restrictions planned for next week, as ministers convened Monday to discuss reopening grades 7-10 in some areas and removing entry restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport.

The ministry’s position, which officials were set to present during the cabinet meeting, was due to concerns over the rise in the transmission rate, according to the Haaretz daily. The figure, which represents the number of new COVID-19 cases from each infection, reached 1 in the morning, with any number above that meaning the spread of the virus is accelerating.

Health Ministry officials were also reportedly wary of a swift rise in new cases due to illicit mass gatherings over the Purim holiday.

“The previous decline [in infections] has halted,” a ministry source was quoted as saying by the newspaper. “We already saw the changing trend before Purim. This means that morbidity is beginning to rise.”

The source said an increase in infections was expected after the lifting of some restrictions on commerce and schools, but “the question is how far it will go.”

Young people dressed up in costumes during the Jewish holiday of Purim, dance at a street party in the neighborhood of Nahlaot in Jerusalem on February 28, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The next stage of the government’s reopening plan, scheduled for around March 7, includes allowing students in grades 7-10 to return to school in low-infection areas, reopening restaurants and cafes, permitting hotels and event venues to open in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines, and easing limitations on gatherings.

Despite advocating for pushing off easing restrictions on businesses and gatherings, the Health Ministry backed further reopening schools next week, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein agreeing students would go back to the classroom on March 7, Hebrew media reports said.

High school students take their mathematics matriculation examination, in Yehud Comprehensive High School on February 3, 2021. (Flash90)

The agreement was reached without consulting Education Minister Yoav Gallant, according to the reports. Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, has been pushing for grades 7-10 to reopen Wednesday and was expected to tussle with other ministers on the issue during the cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu had indicated Sunday he wanted schools to reopen in the coming days, but Channel 12 news reported he was persuaded by health officials to postpone the reopening until next week

Speaking at the start of the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu condemned illegal parties and gatherings that had taken place during Purim, calling the violations “intolerable.” Major street parties were held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and around the country.

The prime minister also said he was seeking to reopen more schools in areas with high vaccination rates, according to leaks from the meeting.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, meanwhile, called for allowing all Israelis unable to return from abroad due to the closure of Ben Gurion Airport back into the country.

“There is no prohibition in other countries on citizens returning to their countries,” he said.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev was expected to present a plan to the cabinet whereby all Israelis abroad would be permitted to return to Israel to vote in the March 23 elections.

The arrival hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Regev said Sunday that entry will be granted without requiring the permission of the controversial permits committee, which a television report last week claimed was giving preferential treatment to requests by Haredim. This led opposition politicians to accused Netanyahu of using the committee to allow only potential right-wing voters to arrive in the country ahead of the March 23 elections. Netanyahu and Regev have strongly denied those claims.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli and some foreign airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad, leaving thousands unable to return. Entrance into the country requires special permission by the government that is granted on a case-by-case basis ahead of a flight.

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