Cabinet to review lockdown on Wednesday

Ministers extend lockdown until Friday morning, keep airport closed for week

At late-night cabinet meeting, Netanyahu and Gantz spar over rules before reaching compromise on prolonging the nationwide closure, already in its 4th week

Police enforce lockdown restrictions at a termporary roadblock outside Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Police enforce lockdown restrictions at a termporary roadblock outside Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

After a heated debate late into the night, the cabinet voted to extend the nationwide lockdown until Friday morning at 7 a.m. and keep the airport closed until Sunday.

The regulations on Israel’s nationwide lockdown rules briefly expired at midnight on Sunday night, as government ministers held a stormy cabinet meeting on extending the closure. Ministers then renewed the lockdown regulations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced early Monday that the restrictions, which have forced nonessential businesses and most schools to remain closed for the past month, will remain in effect until at least Friday. A ban on nearly all incoming and outgoing flights will remain in effect for another week.

In addition, a committee was set up to examine exemption requests for Israelis who need to return to the country for humanitarian reasons during the closure, the statement said, without giving criteria.

Failure to establish such a committee led to a rescue flight from Frankfurt being delayed on Friday.

The cabinet also decided to reimpose a mandatory quarantine on those allowed to enter in government quarantine hotels. The decision goes into effect from Tuesday.

The cabinet is to meet on Wednesday to decide whether to extend the restrictions even longer.

Netanyahu had been pushing for at least a week extension and Defense Minister Benny Gantz insisting it end no later than Thursday.

The lockdown, Israel’s third since the start of the pandemic, shuttered all non-essential businesses and most of the education system, limited movement and gatherings and closed Israel’s main airport.

The lockdown entered its fourth week on Sunday, but has not successfully brought down infections. New cases, and deaths, continue at a worrying pace, despite Israel’s successful vaccination campaign.

The cabinet meeting on the lockdown saw bickering, with Gantz feuding with Netanyahu and health officials.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Health Ministry was demanding the lockdown rules be extended for another week and Netanyahu supports extending the restrictions for another seven to 10 days, the Walla news site reported.

Gantz was calling for the restrictions to be extended for only three more days, with businesses in low-medium infection zones reopening on Thursday and the education system reopening next Sunday.

The Sunday night discussions came after two funerals attended by thousands of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem in violation of lockdown restriction sparked fresh outrage among politicians, the public, and business owners, who have seen their livelihoods decimated by the lockdowns.

Earlier Sunday, the Knesset passed a bill stepping up enforcement of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown by doubling fines for violators. Gantz and his Blue and White party had demanded the measure pass before holding the meeting on the lockdown extension, putting them at odds with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies in the ruling coalition.

Netanyahu at the start of the meeting urged ministers not to politicize extending the lockdown. At least one of his confidants, coalition whip Miki Zohar, criticized the ultra-Orthodox mass funerals, but Netanyahu has not explicitly condemned the events himself. There have been violations in all areas, but particularly in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.

“We must extend the lockdown by a week and not politicize it, to focus on the violations of one public group or on other communities. Gatherings in every sector must be prevented,” Netanyahu said.

During the meeting, in a message posted to his Twitter account, Netanyahu said, “To be clear: a gathering is a gathering is a gathering. It doesn’t matter if it’s ultra-Orthodox, secular people or Arabs. Unfortunately there are gatherings on all sides, in all these public groups. We need to stop this immediately and stop politicizing it.”

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, following his passing aged 99, due to months-long illness compounded by the coronavirus. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Health officials presented statistics to ministers at the meeting that showed a slowdown in overall morbidity, including in over 60s, but an increase in seriously sick patients aged 40 and under.

Nachman Ash, the government coronavirus czar, said to end the lockdown “we must identify a clear and significant decline in the number of seriously sick and of the load on hospitals.” Ash said some 70 percent of new infections were caused by the British virus variant, which is believed to be more contagious.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, told ministers at the cabinet meeting that some 40% of current coronavirus infections in Israel are among children and teenagers, a far higher rate than earlier in the pandemic.

She said the number of people aged 40-60 who are on ventilators has recently multiplied by six, and that Israel has 25 people under the age of 40 who are on cardiopulmonary bypasses, and 17 on ventilators.

Gantz and Netanyahu sparred over the presentation, with Gantz saying the statistics did not capture “the cost of the lockdown,” according to Walla.

Netanyahu said, “There is a cost in quality of life for everyone, but I’m not talking about quality of life, I’m talking about lives.”

Workers from Chevra Kadisha Kehilat Yerushalayim prepare a body before a funeral at a morgue for people who died from COVID-19, at the Sanhedriya Cemetery in Jeursalem, January 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat added during the meeting that Israel’s successful vaccination campaign was not enough to slow the virus’s spread.

“The pace of infections of the mutated virus strains offsets the effect of the lockdown and vaccinations,” he said.

Netanyahu said the British and South African virus variants were running rampant worldwide, and that Israel’s health system was teetering, but that Israel will receive approximately 1 million more virus doses within a week.

Netanyahu also said that he had held talks recently with the health and education ministries about gradually reopening schools, starting with classes for younger children.

“If there are no more surprises we will be able to gradually open the economy and the education system,” he said.

Channel 12 reported statistics Sunday night showing that of 993,401 Israelis who received a second dose of the vaccine at the time of the survey, there have been 704 confirmed infections, 12 serious cases and two deaths.

The Health Ministry released figures Sunday night showing the outbreak was still refusing to abate, with the test positivity rate remaining at a sky-high 9.5%.

The figures showed 2,595 new cases were confirmed yesterday and 2,632 more were confirmed today by Sunday evening. The daily caseload usually drops over the weekends due to reduced testing. The total cases have reached 643,006, including 65,810 active cases — a figure that is finally starting to go down.

Of them, 1,165 are in serious condition, including 406 in critical condition and 323 on ventilators. The death toll reached 4,786.

The ministry said 3,056,065 Israelis have received the first vaccine dose, with 1,773,213 getting both shots.

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