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TV: Leaders were warned of tens of thousands of cases a day

‘Final effort’: Cabinet okays 2-week lockdown to counter mushrooming virus cases

Full closure to take effect midnight Thursday, shutting all schools, non-essential businesses; daily cases hit 8,000 amid fears of unchecked British variant spread; 1.5m vaccinated

Police at a temporary checkpoint during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police at a temporary checkpoint during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, December 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government ministers voted Tuesday night in favor of tightening the current nationwide lockdown by shuttering schools and nonessential businesses for two full weeks, with the aim of cutting rising daily infections that have passed 8,000 a day.

The increased measures will come into force at midnight between Thursday and Friday and last for at least 14 days, according to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “one final effort” to keep COVID-19 at bay, as contagion spreads alarmingly even as Israel continues its vaccination campaign. Leading the world in per capita vaccinations, Israel had inoculated some 1.5 million of its 9.3 million populace by late Tuesday, including some 55% of its 60-plus age group.

A statement said ministers will vote overnight on the specific measures, which leaks indicated will include closing all workplaces, except for essential workers; limiting gatherings to five indoors, 10 outdoors; and maintaining the limit on traveling beyond 1 kilometer from home.

In perhaps the largest difference to the current limitations, all schools are set to be shuttered, except for special education institutions.

Additionally, Israelis who have not already bought a plane ticket to travel abroad during the two-week period will not be allowed to fly, the PMO said. Kan News reported that the government will also reintroduce the obligation for all arrivals to Israel to enter state-run hotels for quarantine of up to two weeks.

Concluding the cabinet debate, Netanyahu blamed the British variant of the virus for the booming surge in virus cases in Israel.

“We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is spreading at record speed with the British mutation. It has reached Israel and claimed many lives. We must immediately impose a full closure. I have no doubt that the government will approve it and the Knesset must pass it immediately,” he said. “Every hour that we delay, the disease spreads even quicker.”

Netanyahu had been pushing for a strict lockdown for days, but was met with pushback by various ministers, including members of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. But according to Channel 12, warnings by medical experts that Israel could soon see tens of thousands of new cases a day tilted the scale in favor of the new severe measures.

Israel began its third national virus lockdown last week, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, with schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement. Health officials have for days been urging a full lockdown, while many Israelis have been seen to be largely ignoring the instruction to stay home, amid apparent weariness with the ever-changing regulations and a sense that the vaccination campaign underway means the pandemic is nearing its end.

There was no immediate word on any plans for more stringent enforcement of the lockdown by police.

Traffic jams in Tel Aviv as police put up temporary ‘checkpoint’ during a nationwide lockdown, September 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure, and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50 percent capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Amid the already-ballooning virus spread, the mutated, highly infectious strain of the virus first diagnosed in Britain has been detected in Israel, leading to fears it could fuel even more cases. Another strain, from South Africa, has not yet been detected in Israel but is believed to be even more transmissible.

The decision to impose the new restrictions came after Netanyahu and  Gantz agreed earlier Tuesday for members of their respective blocs within the government to support the Health Ministry proposal.

Gantz had said he would support tightening the lockdown on the condition that the court system remains open and demonstrations were allowed to continue — apparently fearing the lockdown could be seen as an attempt to delay Netanyahu’s corruption trial or clamp down on ongoing demonstrations against him.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz seen at the Israeli parliament on November 10, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Despite the reported agreement, a number of Likud ministers were said to have raised objections.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called for “zero” exceptions to the new restrictions. “There is no need to try to convince us about this area or that — everything is important. But I say again: Zero exceptions. In the most extreme manner. If we meet someone in the street without a uniform on, they should be asked why they’re not at home.”

Cyber Minister David Amsalem threatened to “vote against any decision” to leave the courts open, but was shouted down by Blue and White ministers, Channel 13 reported.

According to Channel 12, Netanyahu suggested the matter of protests be discussed separately to other matters so as not to delay decisions.

Gantz also appeared to pin the resurgence on the new strain. “There is no doubt that in light of the basic reproduction number of the mutation, we must take broad, general steps to reduce morbidity,” he told ministers, according to Walla.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash reportedly said that “a rapid and unusual rate of infection has been identified in a number of localities,” raising the suspicion that the mutation is to blame.

He said that so far, 189 cases of the mutation had been identified in Israel and that health officials believed it was “spreading and expected to increase the rate of infection.” He said those 189 cases had been tracked down to 30 people, meaning an average of more than five people infected by each person.

Army Radio reported that data submitted to the ministers showed over one-quarter (25.9%) of active virus cases were in children and teenagers in schools.

Media reports Tuesday afternoon indicated that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent ultra-Orthodox religious leader, was in favor of allowing Haredi schools in Jerusalem to close, so long as all Israeli educational institutions did so.

However, Haaretz reported in the evening that Kanievsky had changed his mind and was now in favor of keeping the schools open regardless of the government decision.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson Yaakov Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Many Haredi institutions for Torah studies have operated against health regulations throughout the pandemic, with rabbis often giving their blessing to such activities. A lack of adherence to health rules has been prevalent in some parts of the Haredi community, leading to higher-than-average morbidity in ultra-Orthodox towns.

The 93-year-old religious leader’s consent, rather than the government’s order, is the final word for many in the ultra-Orthodox community.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday evening that there were 58,932 active virus cases, with 8,371 infections confirmed the previous day, the highest daily increase since over 9,000 infections were recorded on September 30, when the country was under a second national lockdown.

Along with another 6,633 cases since midnight, the number of infections since the pandemic began rose to 456,139.

The death toll stood at 3,489, with seven Israelis dying from COVID-19 on Tuesday.

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