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Ministers to meet on lockdown rollbacks amid concerns pandemic spreading again

Positive infection rate rises to 2.3% despite lower weekend testing; Health Ministry director-general confirms outbreak is growing with rate of infection per person now at 1.0

People shop in Jerusalem on November 12, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People shop in Jerusalem on November 12, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The high-level coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Sunday morning to discuss further rolling back lockdown measures, despite worrying signals that the decline in new infections was slowing.

Among the measures to be discussed by the forum of ministers who set policy for dealing with the virus outbreak are restarting in-person learning for grades 5-6 and 11-12, allowing malls to reopen, and imposing a nighttime curfew.

The Health Ministry is skeptical of a curfew, however, arguing it would be ineffective in bringing down infections unless it begins between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m., according to the Ynet news site. The ministry also reportedly remains opposed to reopening malls, museums and gyms.

Ministers ended a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet Thursday without decisions on further easing the national lockdown, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that no decision would be made until this week.

People stand in line outside stores in Jerusalem after they were permitted to reopen following a national lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, on November 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

High school students take a matriculation examination in Yehud, July 8, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The meeting of the coronavirus cabinet comes amid new signs that infections in the country may be trending upward again, despite lower rates recorded over the weekend.

The Health Ministry said Sunday that just 286 coronavirus cases were identified the previous day, although that was the result of the far lower testing rates on weekends. There were just 12,882 test results returned Saturday, with a positive rate confirming infection of 2.3 percent. That compares with 30,000- 40,000 test results returned on each of the proceeding days of the week.

On Friday, the Health Ministry said 817 new virus cases were confirmed the previous day out of 39,160 tests, a 2.1% positive rate.

As of Sunday, there were 7,947 confirmed active cases in the country, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 323,503, according to the Health Ministry. Of the active cases, 298 were in serious condition, including 129 on ventilators.

The death toll rose overnight by 11 to 2,732.

Medical team member takes a swab to test for the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on October 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to Kan radio Sunday morning, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy confirmed that data showed the pandemic’s R-naught — the number of people each infected person infects — had risen to 1.0 for the first time since Israel began emerging from its second national lockdown in mid-October.

Any R-naught value above 1 means the pandemic is growing, while values below 1 show it is shrinking.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy briefs the press at ministry offices in Jerusalem, October 8, 2020 (Health Ministry)

Advising against lifting restrictions, Levy said that if infection rates continued to rise, a third lockdown was on the books.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that we will have to enter another lockdown if the infection rate increases,” he said. “If we do not make sure to exit the closure in a controlled and careful manner, we will definitely reach a situation in which we will have to impose additional restrictions as well as a lockdown.”

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