Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned ministers on Wednesday that the current coronavirus lockdown — which has drastically limited public life and shuttered the education system along with many businesses, and will limit the right to protest — may last months or even up to a year.
The coronavirus cabinet met to discuss setting goals and indicators for a gradual emergence from Israel’s second national lockdown, as well as progress on vaccines and the purchase and use of rapid COVID-19 tests. The meeting came as the health situation grew increasingly dire, with thousands of new cases reported each day, overwhelming hospitals, and COVID-19 deaths steadily climbing.
In leaks from the meeting, Netanyahu was quoted in Hebrew media telling the special forum of relevant ministers dealing with the ongoing outbreak that “our exit strategy [from the lockdown] will be slow this time, and could take place over half a year or a year.”
The government has been criticized for a too-quick lifting of restrictions after the last lockdown in the spring, and for failing to reimpose restrictions when infection rates started to rise in July. Faced with rampant infection rates, a three-week lockdown was begun on September 18, with its terms further tightening last Friday, amid predictions from officials — led by Netanyahu — that it would be extended beyond the initial end date.
During the cabinet meeting Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, reportedly tussled with Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White over the government’s lockdown policy.
According to the reports, Netanyahu raised the possibility of further tightening the current lockdown, including shrinking the one-kilometer radius that people are currently allowed to travel from their homes to as little as 200 meters.
Gantz reportedly replied, “We’re driving the public crazy” with the constantly changing restrictions.
That complaint led to what reports said was a shout from Netanyahu, who was quoted as telling Gantz, “You don’t tell me what we do or don’t do — this is a meeting and I want this discussion. In March-April we updated the plans all the time.”
In contrast to Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz called for an easing of the lockdown and a reopening of businesses that don’t have public visiting hours immediately after the Sukkot holiday, which ends on October 9.
Katz’s plan reportedly also called for the immediate reopening of early childhood education and the younger grades of elementary schools in order to allow parents to return to work.
Under the lockdown schools and most businesses have been shuttered in an effort to bring down the soaring infection rate, which has climbed to over 8,000 daily cases on some days.
During the meeting, ministers heard that the lockdown has so far not been implemented as planned, with traffic figures showing that many members of the public are apparently not adhering to the requirement to stay home.
Government coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu suggested ramping up the fines for those who do not follow lockdown orders on wearing masks or open businesses that are supposed to be shut. Gamzu urged for doubling or, in some cases, further multiplying the size of fines as a deterrent.
Gamzu, who was appointed in July, is set to end his role in November and Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu is planning to ask former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash to take over instead. Barbash had been selected as virus czar earlier this year but ultimately did not take the job due to a dispute over the powers he would be granted, leaving the position to Gamzu.
Throughout the pandemic, Barbash has been an almost nightly fixture on Channel 12 news, offering his often critical opinion on how the efforts to curb the virus are going.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu instructed the Health Ministry to prepare the healthcare system to handle as many as 5,000 seriously ill coronavirus patients at a time, over six times what is estimated to be the current maximum capacity of the country’s hospitals, where there are currently 821 virus patients in serious condition.
The figure suggested there is no clear sign that the steep rise in the infection rate is slowing or reversing.
The prime minister said he wants hospitals prepared to treat up to 1,500 seriously ill patients immediately, 3,200 by mid-October and 5,000 by November, according to Channel 12.
While health officials have for months cited 800 seriously ill coronavirus patients as the maximum the healthcare system can handle, hospitals have been steadily expanding their coronavirus wards and training staff to prepare for higher numbers.
Citing health officials, Channel 13 reported that terminal coronavirus patients are dying more quickly than in the first wave of infections in the spring. Then, the average length of hospitalization before death was 15 days, but now it is 11 days, the report said.
The country’s coronavirus death toll passed 1,500 on Monday night, the latest Health ministry data showed, with over 500 new deaths recorded in some three weeks as the fatality rate per capita surpassed that of the United States.
The death toll stood at 1,552 on Tuesday evening, as new diagnoses and seriously ill patients remained on the rise, as did the percentage of tests coming back positive.
Israel has had a total of 243,895 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, with 68,110 active cases, 821 of them serious, and 255 in moderate condition.
The government’s new restrictions on protests, a controversial part of its efforts to rein in the country’s runaway coronavirus infection rate, were set to be brought for a vote in the Knesset Constitution Committee on Thursday at 11 a.m., Channel 12 reported.
The restrictions would apply the one-kilometer travel limit from one’s home to political protests. Protesters will no longer be able to travel to mass rallies but must hold protests near their homes.
If lawmakers approve the measure, it will go into effect 24 hours later, and is expected to dramatically shrink the planned weekend protests outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.