Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Thursday night that an unpopular new nationwide lockdown set to begin on Friday was “important” and “necessary” to stem the rising coronavirus infection rate, which passed 5,000 daily infections this week.
Speaking in a televised statement from his official residence in Jerusalem, the prime minister touted his government’s initial handling of the pandemic and said other countries besides Israel, which now has one of the highest daily infection rates per capita in the world, were also reintroducing restrictions.
“We made every effort to balance health considerations and economic needs,” he said, but rising infection rates meant “there may be no choice but to tighten the restrictions. I won’t impose a lockdown for no reason, but I won’t hesitate to add restrictions if it’s necessary.
“My obligation and responsibility as prime minister is not only to protect your health, but to protect your lives,” he said, and noted, “There’s a limit to what the healthcare teams can do [before the system is overwhelmed].”
He urged the public: “Wear masks and avoid gatherings.”
“The more this is done, the less there is a need for stringent measures,” Netanyahu said. “Those two steps are more important than any measures we impose.”
He sought to dispel reports of disagreements between him and the government’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, over the efficacy of a lockdown.
“The lockdown is important, it’s necessary and in this lockdown we’ll stand together,” he said.
He added that a new plan to address the economic fallout caused by the lockdown measures would be discussed later in the evening, and include “grants to help businesses keep their workers, expanding [loan] guarantees by the state,” and other measures.
He also said a vaccine for the virus was “on the horizon.”
“We’re coming close to a vaccine, but it will take a few months until we see the first vaccines, and a little more time before we get them. But it’s on the horizon, something I couldn’t tell you a few weeks and months ago.”
Other countries will also face the decision of whether to lock down again nationwide, “and in my opinion most of them will have no choice but to do so,” Netanyahu said.
He noted that health officials had “raised the red flag last week” and that infection rates had spiked in recent days, including a sharp rise in serious cases that hit an all-time high of 579 patients on Thursday.
He denied earlier reports that consultations among top officials about imposing the new restrictions had been “tense.”
“We’ll beat the coronavirus,” he said, “but we’ll only beat the virus if we act together.”
Speaking after Netanyahu, Finance Minister Israel Katz announced a number of measures to help individuals and businesses hurt by the restrictions.
He said he’ll push a proposal to lower the salaries of ministers and Knesset members, as a “personal example for other sectors to follow.” Katz has been calling for high-earning public sector employees to agree to salary cuts as the government faces a runaway deficit due to the virus.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein also spoke at the briefing, telling Israelis that officials had already concluded that a three-week lockdown was “not enough” to stem the latest outbreak.
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 Health Ministry data released Thursday.
The figure is far higher than the 1,000 daily cases the Health Ministry is aiming for before it will consider lifting some of the lockdown measures, which will see movement restricted, leisure sites closed, and the education system shuttered, among other limitations, officials said.
Over 1,200 people are hospitalized with the virus, 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 been diagnosed with COVID-19, or nearly 2 percent of the population.
In response to those worrying numbers, Israel’s cabinet voted on 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 they 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.