Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of cabinet ministers Monday that they will reconvene in 48 hours to decide on tightening an ongoing national lockdown, with the aim of reversing an spiraling upward trend in infections.
Health officials have been urging a full lockdown instead of continuing current measures that have clamped down on commercial activities, but largely left the education system and many businesses still operating. Amid the already ballooning virus spread, a mutated, highly infectious strain of the virus first diagnosed in Britain has been detected in Israel, leading to fears it could fuel even more cases.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned ministers that Israel was heading toward the same fate as Italy, which last year was one of the worst-affected countries and has so far suffered some 75,000 deaths.
“If we don’t take the most stringent action, in March we will be in the same situation as Italy last March,” Edelstein said, according to leaks from the meeting reported by Hebrew media.
Netanyahu asserted that alongside the fast-paced mass vaccination drive, stricter limits on public life for a short period will be enough to enable rolling back the restrictions and reviving the economy,
“Thanks to the millions of vaccines, with a short, tight lockdown we will save many lives and we will be the first in the world to bring back the economy,” Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting.
He said it will be “a final effort to eradicate the pandemic.”
Netanyahu told ministers that the vaccination campaign, which has so far given shots to over 1.2 million citizens in just two weeks, was putting Israel first in line worldwide to exit the coronavirus crisis and vowed to do everything possible to keep the drive in high gear.
However, there is opposition within the cabinet to some possible lockdown measures, in particular closing the education system, a move Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz has said he will not agree to. A meeting of the core panel of ministers tasked with forming policy on dealing with the virus is reportedly scheduled to convene Tuesday to decide on a full closure of the education system. Only the full cabinet can give final approval to lockdown orders.
During the Monday cabinet meeting, ministers were also to review an aid package for self-employed Israelis and businesses that have suffered from the economic impact of the virus pandemic.
Netanyahu said the package, proposed by Finance Minister Israel Katz, will cost more than NIS 2 billion ($623,262) and that a waiver for businesses on paying municipal property tax would be extended, Channel 12 news reported.
“This money will immediately make things easier for businesses and in a short time, we will open up the whole economy and finally get out of the crisis,” Netanyahu said.
The financial measures are to be brought for Knesset approval in the coming days.
On Monday, there were 52,123 active virus patients in the country, according to the Health Ministry’s evening figures, a level not seen for months. Of those, 793 were serious condition with 203 on ventilators. The death toll rose to 3,435 fatalities since the start of the outbreak.
On Sunday, there were 5,199 coronavirus virus cases diagnosed, the ministry said. Of 79,655 virus test results returned, 6.6 percent were positive.
Israel began its third national lockdown since the start of the virus outbreak last week, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, including schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement.
The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure, and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.