Virus czar absent from lockdown presser, amid reports of disagreements with PM

‘Lockdown turning into a joke,’ Netanyahu complains in reported tense discussion with Ronni Gamzu; PM later denies the consultations have been friction-filled

Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Less than 24 hours before an open-ended nationwide lockdown is set to go into effect, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly sparred with the government’s coronavirus czar over fears the dramatic step won’t be effective in stemming the rising rates of coronavirus infections.

The coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, canceled a planned Thursday evening public briefing on the lockdown rules after he was summoned to a meeting chaired by the prime minister intended to consider new restrictions to ensure the lockdown is effective.

When that meeting ended and Netanyahu and the health and finance ministers addressed the nation, Gamzu was conspicuously absent. In his remarks, insisting the lockdown was necessary, Netanyahu denied that the consultations on the issue had been “friction-filled” and stressed he would not be imposing the unpopular nationwide closure if it wasn’t needed.

According to quotes from the meeting on the new restrictions reported by Channel 12, Gamzu warned that the public wouldn’t adhere to the lockdown rules, leading Netanyahu, apparently angrily, to ask why the lockdown was going forward.

“I don’t think a long-term lockdown is the right answer to the coronavirus,” Gamzu was quoted as telling the prime minister, even though he has backed the move. “If we were at 2,000 infected daily [instead of the current rate of some 5,000], and this wasn’t the holiday period [when Israelis congregate with families and attend crowded synagogues], I wouldn’t be taking any step like this.”

Instead, said Gamzu, “I’d be sticking to the ‘traffic light’ plan,” which called for targeted localized lockdowns wherever outbreaks are detected.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at his official residence in Jerusalem on September 17, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Gamzu said he feared the public won’t obey the broad travel restrictions. “The public isn’t with us. We have to consider the economy too. Even if I go out there and say that every week will see 1,000 dead, the public won’t be convinced. It’s just not there.”

Netanyahu then demanded, “I’m imprisoning the citizens in their homes for no benefit at all?”

“What we had in March-April isn’t the situation in September,” Gamzu replied. “We’re still stuck in the paradigm that if we close them in that they’ll stay home.”

“The situation we’re going into now — what will it achieve?” Netanyahu reportedly asked.

“I estimate that we’ll see some stabilizing [of the infection rate]. We’ll go down to maybe 3,000 to 4,000, no more than that,” Gamzu answered.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein holds a press conference during his visit at the Assuta hospital in Ashdod on August 20, 2020. (Flash90)

“Then what happens after that?” Netanyahu wondered. “I understand the challenges. What will we say afterward, after we deliver a result of 3,000 sick after this closure?”

Gamzu replied that “we have to manage public expectations. We won’t be able to repeat the public [support for painful measures] of March-April.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein then joined the exchange, the report said, warning that a lockdown may turn out to be ineffective because the country’s contact-tracing and “infection-disruption” operation, currently being built by the IDF, isn’t ready.

“We won’t be able to avoid more serious restrictions,” Edelstein warned. “We aimed for the holidays so we can live with it better. But we ended up with a lockdown full of holes, with restrictions that people hate. The public is asking what will happen after the lockdown, and we’re repeating this answer about disrupting the chains of infection — but we’re not there, and we won’t be able to control [a situation with] 2,000 or 3,000 daily infected either.”

Hasidic Jews wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus observe social distance as they visit the tomb of Rabbi Nahman, the founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement, days before the Jewish New Year in the town of Uman in central Ukraine on September 15, 2020. (GENYA SAVILOV / AFP)

Netanyahu reportedly concluded the conversation on a pessimistic note. “The lockdown is turning into a joke, not a ‘lockdown light’ but a joke lockdown. If the 500-meter limit [on how far people can go from their homes] is dropped, there’s not a lot left.”

The officials decided to wait until after the Rosh Hashanah holiday, which begins Friday night, before deciding on stiffening restrictions.

Israel is poised to enter the sweeping, open-ended nationwide closure at 2 p.m. on Friday, hours ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday; officials have said it will last at least three weeks, while indicating it would last longer if the soaring virus rates aren’t brought down. The government approved the lockdown measures on Sunday, hours before Netanyahu left for Washington to sign normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Netanyahu is said to be concerned about the many loopholes in the lockdown and reports of preparations by many Israelis to use those loopholes to avoid the restrictions — even as the pandemic worsens and Israel’s hospitals see a record high in seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

In a video he issued after the consultations and before Netanyahu’s press conference, Gamzu said Israel had no choice but to enter the lockdown due to the high rate of infection. He warned “we’ll bring a disaster on ourselves” if Israelis flout the measures.

He added that restrictions during the first wave of the virus in March and April were lifted too quickly, leading to the virus’s resurgence, and that the proper tools weren’t in place to avoid the need for further sweeping lockdowns.

500-meter-rule… or 1 kilometer?

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, told lawmakers Thursday the government had agreed to ease one highly criticized limitation prohibiting Israelis from traveling more than 500 meters from their homes during the upcoming lockdown.

Asher said during the meeting that the government was set approve extending the distance to one kilometer. However, Netanyahu made no such announcement.

Meanwhile, the Israel Police on Thursday released a map showing where 38 checkpoints and some 700 officers will be posted around the country to prevent Israelis from traveling freely during the lockdown.

Earlier Thursday, Edelstein defended the government’s lockdown plan against a barrage of criticism and said the restrictions could be tightened further or extended, while imploring Israelis to observe the rules that are set to come into effect on Friday afternoon.

“I am not inclined to lie or deceive the public,” he told reporters. “It’s possible that it will take time, or that we will need to tighten the lockdown further until we see a drop in infections.”

Most ministers voted Wednesday night to okay a roster of new restrictions that will prohibit people from traveling more than 500 meters from their home, along with a list of exceptions. The rules are still subject to approval by the Knesset’s Constitution, Justice and Law Committee.

The rules have faced opposition from religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews because it will impact public prayer services during the High Holidays; from business owners because of the loss in trade; and from the general public because the closure of the education system will force many parents to miss work as they stay home to care for young children.

The lockdown comes after Israel saw over 5,000 daily confirmed virus cases this week, an all-time high.

Opposition lawmakers and some health experts have come down hard on the lockdown.

“In about 40 hours, the people responsible for the terrible failure in dealing with the coronavirus will be putting us all under house arrest,” tweeted the leader of the opposition, MK Yair Lapid. “They themselves don’t believe it will help. The lockdown is an admission that they’ve given up, are helpless. We are paying the price.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman — who has previously urged Israelis not to adhere to the health regulations — said the lockdown was “illogical.”

Israel has seen virus cases surge in recent weeks, giving it one of the highest infection rates per capita in the world. On Tuesday, it hit an all time high of around 5,500, but on Wednesday dropped back down to 4,546 new cases, according to initial Health Ministry data released Thursday.

The figure is still far higher than the 1,000 daily cases the Health Ministry is aiming for before it will consider lifting some of the lockdown measures that will see movement restricted, leisure sites closed, and the education system shuttered, among other limitations.

Over 1,200 people are hospitalized with covid-19, and a record 579 patients were listed in serious condition on Thursday, according to Health Ministry figures.

Since the start of the pandemic 172,322 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, or nearly 2 percent of the population. Israel’s death toll was 1,163 as of Thursday afternoon.

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