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Ministers to meet again on virus restrictions as cases appear to trend upward

2.7% percent of tests come back positive; coronavirus cabinet set to reconvene after 7-hour discussion on Sunday yielded no decisions

Border Police officers patrol in Jerusalem, November 15, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Border Police officers patrol in Jerusalem, November 15, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Figures released by the Health Ministry on Monday showed signs that infections may be trending upward again, as ministers were set to convene again after a seven-hour meeting of the coronavirus cabinet ended Sunday evening without either approving any rollback of lockdown measures or green-lighting any new restrictions.

The Health Ministry said 613 coronavirus cases were identified the previous day, as testing levels started to rise again after dropping over the weekend. There were 23,062 tests carried out on Sunday, with a positive rate confirming infection of 2.7 percent. That compares with 30,000-40,000 test results returned daily last week, with a slightly lower positivity rate.

As of Monday morning, there were 7,767 confirmed active cases in the country, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 324,135, according to the Health Ministry. Of the active cases, 294 were in serious condition, including 130 on ventilators. The death toll held steady at 2,732.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that he would meet privately with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss what measures should be taken and propose them at the follow-up coronavirus cabinet meeting on Monday, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

Among the measures on the agenda of the forum of ministers, which sets policy for dealing with the virus outbreak, was restarting in-class learning for grades 5-6 and 11-12, allowing malls to reopen, closing all businesses from 7 p.m., hiking fines for violations, and imposing a nighttime curfew.

According to Channel 12 news, the reopening of school was the most contentious issue. On Monday morning, Education Minister Yoav Gallant defended the delay on a decision, but claimed that school closures had not contributed to a drop in infection rates. The reopening of schools in May and again in September was blamed for a sharp surge in virus cases nationwide.

“The prime minister, because of the weight of the decision, asked for more time to think things through. Education is an issue of national importance, the closure of the institutions has not even slightly contributed in the last month to reducing morbidity,” Gallant told the Kan public broadcaster.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaking in the Knesset plenum, October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Knesset spokesperson’s office)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid criticized the ministers’ failure to reopen schools.

“Once again the cabinet rejected the decision to open the schools. Complete lawlessness. This government is a disgrace,” he tweeted.

Lapid also falsely said that Israel was one of only a few countries where children have not been to school since March.  The Israeli school system fully reopened for in-person learning briefly in May, before shutting for older children as infection rates spiraled. It reopened for two weeks in September, before the country was placed under lockdown.

One of the concerns ministers are discussing is the basic reproduction rate — a figure representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects — which is on the rise and has surpassed 1.0, meaning the number of active cases is rising rather than declining.

“I had hoped to get a means of lowering the basic reproduction rate, which I didn’t get tonight,” Netanyahu reportedly said on Sunday. “I’m not making a decision in the meantime.”

During the Sunday meeting, Netanyahu dropped the idea of imposing a countrywide nighttime curfew after facing opposition from the newly installed national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash and the Israel Police, among others.

After officials said a curfew was not an effective way to curb the virus spread, Netanyahu said that attention should instead be focused on a proposal to apply the measure only in local virus hotspots, alongside full closures in the worst-hit areas.

Police officers patrol outside shops during a national lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Rosh Pina on November 8, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu reportedly became impatient with the lack of progress toward making any decisions, saying, “We have an extraordinary talent for dragging out these debates.” A meeting last week had decided only to push off all decisions until this week.

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection numbers from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October, with a nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well as permitting some street-front businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

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