Knesset passes ‘COVID law,’ ending state of emergency in place for most of pandemic

Law allows for more supervision by MKs over decisions, requires government to differentiate between emergency and ‘special health situation’ when placing restrictions

Illustrative: Police officers at the entrance to the Emmanuel settlement in the West Bank during a coronavirus lockdown, on September 8, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Illustrative: Police officers at the entrance to the Emmanuel settlement in the West Bank during a coronavirus lockdown, on September 8, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The Knesset on Tuesday passed the so-called “coronavirus law,” bringing an end to the state of emergency that has been in place for most of the pandemic and requiring greater legislative supervision over COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the government.

The new law will go into effect on February 1 and last until the end of 2022. If the cabinet wants to impose coronavirus-related restrictions during that period, it will have to classify the circumstance as one of two options: a state of emergency or a less severe, “special health situation.” The government will be allowed to impose restrictions in either case, but more serious rules will only be allowed in a state of emergency. The Knesset will ultimately have to sign off on decisions made in either designation.

The coronavirus law passed by the previous government in July 2020 did not require such differentiation and was criticized for giving the cabinet too much leeway to institute sweeping lockdowns and restrictions that limited freedom of movement. Some of that criticism was voiced again on Tuesday, with opposition lawmakers arguing that the coalition had passed legislation all too similar to the law its members vehemently opposed less than two years ago when the roles in the Knesset were switched.

Under the new law, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee or the entire plenum must approve either of the two national health conditions within seven days. If neither does so, the validity of the government’s declaration expires.

The law only allows the government to declare a special health situation if ministers are convinced that an ongoing wave of the virus places public health at risk. To declare a state of emergency, ministers must be convinced that there is a significant upward trend in morbidity or that the virus is widespread enough to risk destabilizing the entire public health system. In both scenarios though, the government must receive the opinions of the health minister and the professional staff in that office.

Each state of emergency imposed will last 45 days while special health situations will last 90 days.

A plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Declaring a state of emergency will allow the government to impose lockdowns, require schools to move classes online and impose restrictions on travel abroad.

Under both a state of emergency and a special health situation, the right to protest will be left untouched, contrary to the previous law, which allowed for limits on such gatherings during certain lockdowns.

As a result of a compromise reached with opposition lawmakers, neither national health conditions will include restrictions on movement for prayer purposes.

In a special health situation, restrictions will only come in place after the Constitution Committee votes to approve them. They must be brought before the panel five days before the government seeks to put them in place.

In a state of emergency, new restrictions are allowed to be instituted before the Constitution Committee approves them, but the panel is given 48 hours to ratify after the fact — 24 more hours than given under the previous law.

The new law also requires any new mask or quarantine requirements to receive the approval of the Knesset’s Health Committee.

Stores selling essential products will not be allowed to require customers to show proof of the Green Pass vaccination status cards upon entry under the new law. The legislation also requires the government to fund coronavirus tests for sectors of the population who are unable to get vaccinated due to specific medical conditions.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet tasked with determining the government’s pandemic policy will be made up of at least seven ministers, including the health and prime minister. It does not specify which other cabinet members must sit on the panel, contrary to the previous law. However, the finance minister will be required to participate in all meetings on the implementation of economic restrictions. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman came under fire last year for not attending such meetings.

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