New virus czar spoke out against shutdown as second wave began to hit

In post earlier this month, Ronni Gamzu called widespread closures a ‘doomsday weapon,’ said he prefers less-severe restrictions

Then director-General of the Health Ministry Prof. Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance committee meeting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem. April 23, 2014. (Flash90)
Then director-General of the Health Ministry Prof. Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance committee meeting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem. April 23, 2014. (Flash90)

The new coronavirus czar charged with leading the government’s response to the pandemic has spoken out against proposals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to reimpose strict countrywide lockdowns as case numbers rose.

Ronni Gamzu, a former director general of the Health Ministry who now heads the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, wrote in a July 3 Facebook post that “the doomsday weapon of a widespread lockdown is not a solution to the coronavirus crisis.”

Gamzu was tapped for the senior post Wednesday night after Gabi Barbash, a former senior health official who was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred candidate, walked away from the job due to disputes with the Health Ministry over how to handle the crisis.

The chief disagreement was over the division of authority between Edelstein and Barbash if he had been appointed to the position. Barbash was said to have told officials he would not be able to lead the fight against the pandemic effectively without powers over the health system, the Health Ministry, and other ministries as well.

Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)

Edelstein and Netanyahu were at odds over Barbash’s appointment, with the premier wanting Barbash to work directly under him, even if the virus czar position was officially under the purview of the Health Ministry, Channel 13 reported.

In a separate Facebook post on Thursday morning, Gamzu said Netanyahu and Edelstein had reached out to him in the middle of the night asking if he’d take the position and that he had immediately responded in the affirmative.

“This is a medical, economic and social crisis,” Gamzu noted. “I do not ask questions in such a situation — I simply show up and contribute my entire being to helping my country and the health system in managing the crisis.

“The challenges are enormous: restoring public confidence in the government’s ability to respond to the pandemic, creating a smart balance between reducing infection and allowing citizens to continue living their lives, improving the public’s adherence to the guidelines and our enforcement of them, improving contact-tracing and continuing to strengthen the medical system,” he wrote.

In a statement on Thursday morning, Edelstein welcomed the appointment.

“I am very happy that someone like Prof. Gamzu will help with everything related to the struggle against the coronavirus,” he said. “We take the good [people] to control the curve and do everything we can to fight this accursed virus.”

In early July, Gamzu had expressed his support for the government’s decision to reopen the economy after the first wave, but admitted that it was done too quickly and not in an organized fashion.

He said that several hundred new cases a day was a price worth paying to  keep the economy open, though Israel has since hit 2,000 confirmed carriers a day.

Gamzu explained that in order to keep the economy open, the government needed to continue limiting gatherings, improve enforcement against violators of restrictions, improve the contact-tracing system and improve the government’s PR effort, explaining its decisions to the public.

Perhaps because his appointment was so spontaneous and took place in the middle of the night, Netanyahu and Edelstein neglected to update Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as required by the latter’s coalition agreement with Likud, Channel 12 reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a Likud party faction meeting in the Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Edelstein apologized to Gantz on Army Radio on Thursday morning.

The defense minister went on to issue a statement saying he had spoken with Gamzu to congratulate him on his appointment, and told him the entire security establishment was on hand to help fight the pandemic. Gantz also said the two were to meet soon.

There was no single figure managing the ongoing campaign before Gamzu’s appointment. The effort had been led by the National Security Council and overseen by the government and a special so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers, as well as the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee.

Since Israel lifted a lockdown that had brought daily detected infections down to the low double digits, the country has been struggling to contain a second wave of the virus that has driven that figure to around 2,000. There has been increasing public criticism and anger over the government’s handling of the crisis, with cabinet ministers divided over how to handle the outbreak, and what restrictions to impose on the public, in an effort to curb the spread.

There were 32,755 active coronavirus cases in Israel as of Wednesday night, with 295 Israelis in serious condition, including 79 on ventilators. There were another 131 people in moderate condition, while the rest had mild or no symptoms.

There were two new fatalities on Wednesday night and Thursday, bringing the death toll to 433, the ministry said, and 23,560 Israelis had recovered from the virus.

On Wednesday evening, Health Ministry figures showed 2,136 new cases in the previous 24 hours, the highest single-day total since the start of the pandemic.

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