In an apparent public spat between top government officials Thursday, Health Ministry leaders were quoted by multiple media outlets calling for an extension to a national lockdown of Israeli cities set to end Friday morning — only for the idea to be shot down by officials in the Finance Ministry soon afterwards.
Reports on major networks Channel 12 and Channel 13 news, as well as the Ynet news site, said top officials in the Health Ministry were seeking to extend the severe lockdown barring intercity travel until after the Passover holiday ends on April 15.
Officials were said to fear Israelis would not resist the temptation to venture out during the holiday, potentially leading to a new wave of infections as the country seeks to curb the virus’s spread.
But the Finance Ministry quickly issued a statement rejecting any such extension.
“Clarification: The limitations placed before the holiday on workplaces will be removed tomorrow as planned,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement. “The situation will return to the restrictions in place before Passover Eve.
“As for the reports of continuing the current closure: the head of the National Security Council has updated the Finance Ministry director general that as of now, tomorrow will see a return to the status that was in place before Passover Eve, as planned.”
Israelis continued to be barred Thursday evening from leaving their hometowns as part of the general lockdown that was to be lifted Friday at 6 a.m. A full curfew had been in effect over the first night of the holiday on Wednesday and lifted at 7 a.m. on Thursday morning.
According to an earlier Channel 13 report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to discuss the matter with officials on Thursday evening. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly opposed the move, arguing that it was unjustified, and motivated by a desire not to single out ultra-Orthodox areas most affected by the virus.
Ynet reported that throughout the holiday Wednesday and Thursday, police had handed out hundreds of fines to people breaking Health Ministry guidelines. Channel 12 said over 2,500 fines were handed out. It also said police have not yet been instructed to enforce a regulation set to take effect on Sunday for Israelis to wear masks when out in public areas.
Channel 12 also reported on the government’s plan to slowly reopen the country after Passover.
The report said the plan, led by the National Security Council, would see a gradual release of restrictions — so long as infection rates remain under control. These would include raising the number of workers approved to work outside the home (various models of work by shifts or on alternating days are being reviewed); a return of special needs children to educational institutions and later the return of preschools; a release of citizens from restrictions — according to area and age; eventually easing limitations on the distance people can venture from their homes (currently at 100 meters).
But shopping centers and entertainment and leisure venues were not expected to reopen soon, the report added.
New figures released by the Health Ministry Thursday continued to show the cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak far outpacing other locations in patient numbers, with 1,630 and 1,594 cases respectively. Tel Aviv was at a distant third with 415 patients, followed by Ashkleon with 216 and Elad with 215.
Unlike other cities, the Passover closure in Jerusalem saw residents limited to seven zones within the city.
Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12 Thursday evening that the government was likely in the future to adopt differential treatment of areas in the country, with more stringent limitations on hard-hit zones.
Also Thursday, Channel 12 reported that despite ongoing reporting and criticism of the matter, passengers arriving on flights at Ben Gurion Airport were still being released home without being checked or quarantined. This despite government statements that arrivals would be sent to mandated quarantine in government-run facilities.
On Thursday morning the Health Ministry announced Israel’s death toll stood at 79. There have been 9,755 people diagnosed with the virus; 165 people in serious condition and 119 of whom are on ventilators. Another 171 were in moderate condition, with the rest having mild symptoms.
In a rare case, a five-week-old infant was hospitalized Thursday with COVID-19, and that evening his condition was said to have worsened, though there were no specific details. Infants and children are rarely severely affected by the virus.
So far, 864 Israelis have recovered from the virus, including three women in their 90s Thursday.
The novel coronavirus is spreading quickly in nursing homes around the country, raising intense concern for the safety of elderly residents. The Health Ministry said Thursday it was conducting tests over Passover at assisted living facilities where there have been confirmed COVID-19 cases, adding that 3,000 tests were expected to be performed on each of the coming days.
On Tuesday, a 37-year-old man with serious preexisting illnesses died from the virus, the youngest fatality in Israel.
Almost all of those who have died from COVID-19 in Israel have been elderly and suffered from preexisting conditions, according to hospital officials.
While the death toll has continued to steadily climb, experts have pointed to the relatively slow rise in the number of patients on ventilators as a source of potential encouragement.
Putting a dent in the optimism, health officials are projecting that Israel will fall short of testing 10,000 people a day for the virus in the immediate term because of a shortage of a key reagent.