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Health officials bristle at PM’s criticism at UN: ‘Unnecessary and unpleasant’

After Bennett publicly knocks experts over their demands for new restrictions, ministry chief says he was ‘saddened’ by leader’s words; Horowitz calls comments ‘unfortunate’

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks to Channel 12 news, on September 28. 2021. (Channel 12 screenshot)
Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash speaks to Channel 12 news, on September 28. 2021. (Channel 12 screenshot)

Health officials expressed indignation on Tuesday over Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s criticism of Israeli health experts during his trip to the United Nations the day before.

During a briefing with Israeli journalists while in New York for the UN General Assembly, Bennett took a swipe at officials advising the government on its coronavirus approach, amid reported disagreements over whether to impose further restrictions.

The premier made several comments criticizing officials, saying, among other things, that “they don’t see the full picture” and that they “stuttered” when he demanded explanations for their call to further limit public gatherings.

During his speech at the UN earlier, Bennett also said that “while doctors are an important input, they cannot be the ones running the national initiative. The only person that has a good vantage point of all considerations is the national leader of any given country.”

Interviewed by Kan news on Tuesday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that Bennett’s public critique “was unnecessary and unfortunate,” adding he fully supported health officials’ work — though he agreed with Bennett that fresh limitations were unwarranted.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash told Channel 12 that he was “saddened” that such criticism had been highlighted by Bennett at the UN rather than “the great dedication of medical teams in their daily work to save lives under great strain.

“It’s an unpleasant feeling,” he added. “We didn’t expect such comments… and I am very content with our work.”

He said that it was the professionals’ job to express their opinion, and the government could then decide what it wanted. “We’ll continue to make our opinions heard,” he said.

An unnamed health official told Channel 12 that Bennett “is acting childishly and doesn’t know how to take criticism.”

Another official told Ynet: “We’re giving our all, leading the world, and instead of taking pride in us he attacks us off the UN stage.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to American Jewish leaders in New York City, on September 27, 2021. (Courtesy of the Jewish Federations of North America/Sara Naomi Lewkowicz)

On Friday, Horowitz tweeted: “Let it be clear — Health Ministry experts are doing devoted and excellent work… They are saving lives, every day. Their professional recommendations are the first consideration that guides us, even if not the only consideration.”

He also said, “It’s permitted and necessary to express any opinion on we the politicians’ conduct, even if it’s uncomfortable for us. That’s the role of the experts.”

The comments came after a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet was called for Sunday, the first time that the high-level forum will convene in a month. The last time the cabinet met was in late August, before the school year began and ahead of the Jewish holidays.

With recent figures on morbidity mixed, government and health officials have appeared to feud over imposing additional coronavirus restrictions, with Bennett reportedly deciding against further limitations on gatherings.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks during his visit to the Beilinson Medical Center, on July 27, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meeting Saturday night with Horowitz, Ash, coronavirus czar Salman Zarka and the directors of Israel’s health providers, Bennett reportedly said that proposed restrictions on gatherings would harm the economy and would not reduce morbidity.

“The government policy is an open Israel alongside an unrelenting and sophisticated war against the virus. Not quarantines, lockdowns, more and more restrictions, which is the easiest thing to do, but solutions,” he said, according to the Ynet news site.

“I think about the patients. Everyone in the coronavirus ward is a heartache, but I also think about the economy, the education, the parents who have to work and the children who have to study,” he reportedly said.

Bennett was said to have told the heads of Israel’s HMOs that their focus must continue to be pushing the vaccinations.

An Israeli woman receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Jerusalem, on September 20, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Over 6 million Israelis have received at least one vaccine dose, and more than 3 million have received the third booster.

During a meeting last week, a government advisory panel reportedly urged ministers to reconsider their approach to the pandemic, calling for a policy putting greater emphasis on reducing serious morbidity and urging more limitations on gatherings.

But Hebrew University researchers also presented a study predicting that the number of new cases will decline over the next 10 days, followed by a drop in serious cases, as updated Green Pass rules mandating booster shots take effect next month.

Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting will come days on the same day that anyone who has not received a booster shot six months after getting a second vaccine dose will have their Green Pass revoked.

Under the current Green Pass rules, entry to certain businesses and events is limited to those with proof of vaccination, recovery from COVID-19, or a negative test result.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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