Coronavirus cabinet meeting ends without decisions

Netanyahu said to seek a third national lockdown within days

PM reportedly determined to order closure, given concerns of rising infection rates and the emergence of more virulent coronavirus strains

An Israeli medical worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
An Israeli medical worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set on ordering the country into a third national lockdown to bring down spiraling coronavirus infections, and he wants the closure to start within the next few days, Channel 12 reported Sunday.

Aside from the climbing infection numbers, the prime minister was said to also be worried about the possible arrival of a mutated strain of the virus detected in countries abroad that, while not more lethal, is believed to be much more infectious.

Netanyahu was reportedly holding consultations and was considering calling a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet for Monday so that the core ministers tasked with forming virus policy can debate the issue. Alternatively, Netanyahu was mulling bringing the lockdown plan directly to a specially convened full cabinet meeting, as only the broader panel of ministers has the authority to order a lockdown, the report said.

Such a move would likely face objections within the cabinet, where several ministers, primarily from the Blue and White party, are said to be reluctant to apply another lockdown without giving the public ample warning in advance, and are also worried about its impact on the economy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 19, 2020, becoming the first Israeli to get the vaccine. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the second to be vaccinated, is alongside him. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Two previous lockdowns, the first in April and the second in September, succeeded in dramatically bringing down infection rates at considerable economic cost, but the numbers rose after the restrictions were rolled back.

Amid already spiking infection numbers, Israeli health officials are concerned about the new coronavirus strain found in England, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said data suggests is up to 70 percent more transmissible.

The coronavirus cabinet decided Sunday to ban entry into Israel for foreign nationals from the UK, Denmark, and South Africa — three countries where the mutation has been found — with Netanyahu saying Israel was “doing everything we can to prevent the mutation from entering Israel. We made a difficult decision today, but reality has forced our hand.”

Other countries have similarly barred incoming travelers from Britain, which says the new variant is “out of control.”

Aside from its action to block the mutant strain from arriving, the coronavirus cabinet meeting ended without any decisions on whether to begin tightened restrictions on public life, or to head down the route toward a lockdown. The key difference between the two is that a lockdown would also impact the education system and limit public movement.

The government has previously set two triggers for ordering tightened restrictions — more than 2,500 new cases a day or a virus basic reproduction number of over 1.32. However, with daily cases rapidly rising there has been pressure from health officials to already take action.

On the agenda for Sunday’s meeting was limiting commerce, street store operations and markets; reducing public transportation by 50 percent; and closing schools in red and orange cities, those falling into the top two categories of a color-coding scheme indicating virus infection rates. The education closure would exclude kindergartens and students up to grade 4.

The deputy head of the National Security Council, Eitan Ben-David, warned ministers that with infection rates on the rise, applying restraints won’t be enough to curb the virus’s spread.

“I don’t believe tightened restraints will lead to results, only a lockdown,” he said and advised setting a day for a full national lockdown to begin in three weeks’ time.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash briefs the press, November 26, 2020. (Health Ministry)

National coronavirus czar Nachman Ash was reportedly in favor of sufficing with restraints, albeit with a near total shutdown of commerce. Ash raised concerns over the number of seriously ill patients, which is seen as a key indicator of the pace of the outbreak.

“The picture of the seriously ill is very worrying,” he said and presented predictions for how the infection numbers are expected to spiral.

Ash predicted that without any kind of restraints, within three months the number of seriously ill is expected to reach up to 1,900 with up to another 3,700 deaths from the virus. Immediately applying restraints for a period of five weeks would drop the number of seriously ill to just 800, though fatalities would still be expected to rise by around 1,250 people. Even an immediate three-week national lockdown would still see up to 700 fall seriously ill, and another 1,100 deaths, he warned.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said, “It is clear that we will need to apply tightened restrictions or a lockdown,” and noted that he supported keeping the education system open for as long as possible.

He urged that immediate action be taken in one form or the other.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for balancing between “health and the economy,” but said that in light of the vaccine program, it is best to continue without new restriction for as long as possible and then notify of a lockdown in two weeks.

“We see what is happening in Europe, which is why business as usual is the wrong approach,” Netanyahu countered. “We need another meeting to make decisions and vote.”

Education Minister Yoav Gallant demanded that the entire education system should remain open, regardless of any measures decided upon, with only those schools where more than five cases are found ordered to close.

A medical staff member receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at the Hadassah Medical Center, on December 20, 2020, in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the debate Gallant called for all teaching staff to be vaccinated immediately after medical staff are inoculated. Although teaching staff are prioritized to get the vaccination, they are not next in line, with high-risk populations such as the elderly ahead of them. Transportation Minister Miri Regev also raised the idea that bus drivers and airports authorities workers quickly be vaccinated.

Economy Minister Amir Peretz proposed leaving the situation as it is, though requiring even more strict hygiene measures from businesses that are open, and only on January 15 beginning a full lockdown for three weeks.

When Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shai asked Edelstein if he was prepared to wait two or three weeks and then apply a national lockdown, he reportedly replied, “Absolutely not. It will cost lives.”

Shai recommended maintaining current policies while increasing public awareness campaigns on following health instructions and relying on localized lockdowns in high-infection areas, enforcement and fines, “without closing anything that is open now.”

He also suggested a different trigger for a full lockdown — that the country shut down for three weeks when the number of seriously ill patients reaches 1,500.

On Saturday, there were 1,871 new virus cases diagnosed in the country according to Health Ministry figures released Sunday. There were 23,650 active virus patients, of whom 455 were in serious condition. Since the start of the outbreak earlier this year 3,097 Israelis have died of COVID-19.

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