Amid concerns of a potential rise in new cases, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Monday that the government would not ease additional lockdown measures until coronavirus infection rates further decline.
Speaking during a visit to a new COVID-19 testing station at Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu said ministers will convene in the coming days to deliberate whether to move to the third stage of the multiphase plan for rolling back restrictions put in place to contain the virus.
“If there’s no improvement in the figures, we won’t enter the third stage. Together we’ll take the steps that will ensure infection rates don’t rise because if they do, it rises like an airplane or missile taking off to the skies,” he said.
“We were able to lower the infection rate from one of the highest in the world to one of the lowest in the West, if not the lowest of them,” Netanyahu claimed. “We want to keep going with that. We were able to do it because we did it together.”
Before his statements, the Health Ministry released numbers showing new daily infections remaining over 500, a key threshold for rolling back more lockdown restrictions.
According to the ministry, 522 coronavirus cases were identified on Sunday, up from just 208 coronavirus cases the previous day, although that was the result of the far lower testing rates on weekends. The positive test rate was also up, climbing from just 1.6% on Thursday to 3.1% on Sunday, the ministry figures showed.
Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection rates from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with the nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic. It has remained stubbornly above 500 a day, though, on most days with 30,000 tests or more.
The national lockdown that began on September 18 paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well permitting some street businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.
The third stage in lifting the lockdown was supposed to include the opening of shopping malls, as well as the wider retail market. In addition, school was to be restarted for grades 11-12 to enable students to prepare for matriculation exams.
On Sunday, the acting head of the ministry’s public health services division Sharon Alroy-Preis said that only when the number of new virus cases diagnosed each day dips below 500 will it be possible to move on to the third stage of lifting the lockdown.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, touring the airport alongside Netanyahu, praised the government’s exit from lockdown so far saying, “We are behaving cautiously and coming out of quarantine gradually. Unfortunately, we see various violations in various sectors, such as business opening [without permission] and forbidden gatherings.”
“Let’s behave responsibly in order to reach a fully open airport, open malls, cultural events, sports, and shops. You can do it all together,” he urged.
Edelstein and Netanyahu were at the airport to see a new coronavirus testing lab for travelers. The lab, which includes both fast testing and tests that require a longer wait, is awaiting Health Ministry approval and will likely open in the coming days.
Edelstein said that the Check2fly coronavirus testing system being used at the airport “will help us return to a better, faster and more efficient flight routine.”
Israel lifted an unpopular ban on citizens flying out of the country on October 15 as part of initial steps to ease the nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
The flight ban had been part of a slew of restrictions added on September 25 to reinforce a lockdown that began a week earlier.
Travel is now permitted under the so-called “open skies” plan under which those who have tested negative for the virus before traveling to “green” countries with low virus infection rates are not required to quarantine when they come back. Those returning from “red” countries with high infection rates are still required to self-isolate for 14 days after coming back to Israel.