Health officials push more COVID restrictions in meeting that ends with no decision

Debate deals with proposals to re-enact curbs on large gatherings, expand Green Pass to entire commerce sector; premier said pushing to bar unvaccinated kids from schools

Israelis wear face masks in the Dizengoff Center mall, Tel Aviv, September 13, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis wear face masks in the Dizengoff Center mall, Tel Aviv, September 13, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Health officials reportedly advocated for significantly expanding COVID restrictions to curb the rapidly spreading Omicron coronavirus variant, during a Monday evening meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that ended with no decisions on the matter.

Officials will meet again on Tuesday to reach decisions on new rules, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office, as Israel girds for what is expected to be a major wave of new cases fueled by the fast-spreading strain.

The statement said officials looked at various options to stop the spread of the variant, including limits on gatherings, expanding the Green Pass requirement — proof of vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 — to the entire commerce sector, and ending subsidies of antigen tests for unvaccinated children.

Hebrew media reports said that during the meeting, Health Ministry officials proposed imposing significant restrictions on large crowds and the expansion of the Green Pass.

It was not clear what Bennett’s position was on the two suggestions

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz demanded that any new restrictions be conditioned on the provision of compensation to businesses, Channel 12 reported.

The Finance Ministry also expressed strong opposition to restricting gatherings, which it claims would significantly harm the Israeli economy, according to the Kan public broadcaster. Ministry officials also clarified to the meeting’s participants that they would not agree to a compensation plan for businesses that would take a financial hit from restricted gatherings. They maintained that grants would only be economically viable during a lengthy lockdown, the report said.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz hold a press conference at HaKirya military base in Tel Aviv, November 26, 2021. (Moti Milrod)

Separately, Bennett proposed unvaccinated children be kept out of schools, while those who have been inoculated could continue to learn in educational institutions, Channel 12 said.

According to the report, the prime minister suggested that children ages 5 and up who are eligible for vaccination but have not been inoculated be barred from entering school premises, and forced to study via Zoom.

The channel quoted health officials as calling the proposal “particularly extreme,” and noted that it was unclear if such a proposal would have the support of a majority in the so-called coronavirus cabinet of ministers tasked with leading government policy on the pandemic.

The statement said they discussed ending state payments for the antigen tests unvaccinated children need to show to attend school, a possible less extreme incentive for parents to vaccinate their children.

A child is vaccinated against the coronavirus at an elementary school in Tzur Hadassah, December 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Health Ministry data, 1,013 new infections tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, the highest figure since October.

However, there were still only 83 people in serious condition as of Monday evening, with 49 of them categorized as critical. The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232.

The virus reproduction number, R, was 1.22, having steadily climbed from over one during the past few days. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is growing.

Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million people in Israel — out of the total population of approximately 9.3 million — have received two vaccine doses, and over 4.1 million have gotten a third, booster shot.

Bennett said Sunday that the highly infectious Omicron variant is driving Israel’s fifth wave of coronavirus infections. So far, at least 175 Omicron cases have been confirmed in Israel, including 40 on Sunday alone.

The prime minister also urged business owners who can have employees work from home do so, in order to reduce public interactions, saying that the same measure would be taken in the public sector. He called for diligence in wearing face masks and for avoiding public gatherings.

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