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Knesset passes law to give cities info on unvaccinated residents

Meretz MK says bill is too quick to hand over medical, personal data; Likud committee head pushes back, says saving lives trumps privacy

A paramedic from Magen David Adom medical services, administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at an Ikea store  in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Feb. 22, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
A paramedic from Magen David Adom medical services, administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at an Ikea store in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Feb. 22, 2021 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The Knesset gave final approval on Wednesday to controversial legislation allowing the Health Ministry to give local authorities personal details of residents who have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The proposal passed into law in its second and third readings, 30-13, after a Knesset panel amended the legislation so that details of those who are fully vaccinated will not be given to the municipalities.

Under the terms of the bill, for a three-month period the Health Ministry will be permitted to provide the local authorities and the Education Ministry with personal and contact details of residents for the purpose of promoting inoculation.

Information will include data on those who have had the first of the two-shot vaccination but did not turn up for the second dose three weeks later, as well as those who had no injections at all.

Israelis wait for COVID-19 vaccine injections in a mobile Magen David Station at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on February 22, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In addition to possibly swaying the opinion of those who are against being vaccinated, the program would enable local authorities to locate and provide assistance to those who need help leaving home to get to vaccination centers.

The law stipulates that the information can only be used to encourage vaccination, and any other use is prohibited.

MK Tamar Zandberg speaks during a press conference of the Meretz party ahead of the upcoming elections, in Tel Aviv, January 4, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Among the opponents was MK Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party, who called on the public to get vaccinated, saying the inoculation campaign is “the most important thing at the moment in the State of Israel.”

“However, the trigger finger is too itchy when it comes to passing laws that violate citizens’ privacy,” Zandberg said. “Handing over such data is a slippery slope,” she added, noting that it could fall into the wrong hands.

Labor head MK Merav Michaeli also voted against the measure, charging that it exemplified Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to deal with the pandemic.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks during a protest in Jerusalem, November 9, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“A huge and terrible number of deaths and patients, students who did not study or meet friends for a year, hundreds of thousands who lost their livelihoods without economic rehabilitation,” Michaeli said, addressing the premier.

“You try to hide everything with public relations and obfuscation. This information belongs to citizens, and today you are taking their right to privacy about their medical information,” Michaeli said.

The head of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, Likud MK Haim Katz, responded to the criticism, asking, “Is the value of privacy more important than the value of life?”

Katz said that the committee had removed clauses allowing the transfer of data about children or those who have received both doses of the vaccine.

MK Haim Katz during a panel discussion on the transfer of data on unvaccinated residents to municipalities, at the Knesset on February 23, 2021 (Screen grab/Knesset channel)

“It will only deal with people who are allowed to get vaccinated and have not done so… Two months after the transfer of the data [to local authorities] it will be destroyed,” Katz said. “The sanctity of life is above all.”

According to Health Ministry data released on Wednesday, 4,537,244 people in Israel, or some 50% of the country’s total population, have now received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Additionally, 3,146,509 people have received both doses of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation Israel is almost exclusively using.

Younger people have shown more reluctance to get the vaccination and the Health Ministry hopes the legislation will enable local authorities to advocate immunization among residents who don’t want the shots.

However, the country’s public health union issued a warning on Tuesday against the bill over privacy concerns, and a top democracy expert said the information could be used to target those easily persuaded by conspiracy theories to sway their votes in the coming March elections.

The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians published a letter cautioning that the “legislation will cause short-term and long-term damage to the local authority itself, undermining trust when the benefit is limited and questionable,” Channel 12 reported.

“Hasty legislation that may infringe on the rights of the individual will not significantly contribute to the aim, and could even harm it,” the IAPHP warned.

A vaccination center operated by the Tel Aviv Municipality with Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov hospital), at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, January 19, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The letter was sent to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, and other senior Health Ministry officials. A copy was also given to Katz by representatives of the Israeli Medical Association, the country’s largest doctors union.

“The medical information centralized by the HMOs is an important resource for promoting the vaccination campaign, in part because it is a tool used by the HMOs to prioritize vaccines according to age and background diseases. However, the information in the possession of the HMOs is information that has been determined to be kept confidential,” the letter stressed.

Chair of the public health union Prof. Nadav Davidovitch told Channel 12 that the union fully supports the immunization program, “but we distinguish between actions to encourage immunization and violation of individual rights.”

“This change in legislation is a slippery slope that can undermine public trust and lead to disproportionate enforcement actions,” Davidovitch warned. “Local authorities should not be exposed to confidential medical information.”

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler speaks at a conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, raised concerns that information on the lists given to local authorities could also be used for political gain ahead of the March 23 elections.

“The list of people we have not vaccinated is valuable to those who want to know who among us is susceptible to conspiracy theories, so it is valuable to those who want to win the election,” she told Army Radio on Monday. “I am very worried about it making the rounds.”

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