Officials said to fume over ‘insane’ Health Ministry anti-virus restrictions

TV report quotes government sources criticizing far-reaching directives, warning Israel’s economy could take a nosedive from overreaction

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Director General of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Siman Tov hold a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Director General of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Siman Tov hold a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government officials have lambasted the Health Ministry’s increasingly strict restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus, saying the new guidelines “border on hysteria” and could place the country’s economy in jeopardy, according to a television report on Wednesday night.

Over 70,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, foreigners from several European and Asian countries have been or will be banned, and large events, such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled, due to directives issued by the Health Ministry, which were significantly expanded on Wednesday.

“From the perspective of the Health Ministry, you could just close Israel’s borders. It’s insane and unimplementable,” an unnamed source told Channel 12, hours after the ministry announced the string of new measures, which included extending home quarantines to Israelis returning from much of Western Europe.

According to the television report, the officials said the Health Ministry was concerned about preventing a strain on Israel’s healthcare system but wasn’t sufficiently taking into account the economic repercussions. The sources warned the state was unprepared for a situation in which tens of thousands of employees are off work due to the home quarantines.

The new rules “border on hysteria,” fumed an unnamed official.

The empty departures halls of Ben Gurion Airport. People are cancelling trips due to the fear of the coronavirus. March 4, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The dramatic new measures announced Wednesday sent arrivals from five Western European nations into immediate quarantine and limited mass gatherings throughout the country.

All Israelis returning from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland were instructed to enter self-quarantine for a period of 14 days after their last day in those countries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at a Health Ministry press conference alongside Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and other top officials.

The decision applied retroactively to all who have come from those nations in the last 14 days. Foreign citizens arriving from those countries will not be allowed into Israel unless they can show a proven ability to self-quarantine at a home during their stay.

According to Hebrew media reports, the new directives will send 70,000 or more Israelis into home quarantine. Among those not allowed contact with others are a top IDF general, the editor of Israel’s largest newspaper,

An earlier report had said the US could also be added to the list of countries, but the country was absent from the Wednesday afternoon announcement, despite a dramatic increase of cases stateside.

People arrive to vote at a special polling station for voters quarantined due to possible exposure to the new coronavirus in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on March 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In addition, tourists who have been to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon in the 14 days before their arrival in Israel will not be allowed in.

The ministry also announced that gatherings of over 5,000 people will henceforth not be permitted, and Netanyahu advised Israelis to avoid personal contact, including shaking hands. International conferences of any kind will not be permitted.

Another restriction is a ban on gatherings of over 100 people for people who have returned from anywhere abroad in the past 14 days.

The new restrictions were met with a wave of cancellations of Purim street parties marking the upcoming holiday, concerts and sports events.

Netanyahu told a press conference Wednesday that the virus was “a global epidemic,” possibly “one of the most dangerous in the past century.”

But he insisted that Israel “is in the best state of all nations” in containing the disease, which has so far been diagnosed in 15 Israelis and has sent thousands into quarantine.

People wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus at the Ben Gurion International Airport on February 27, 2020. (Flash90)

“We are in control of the situation, thanks to the great caution we have adopted,” he said. “We have been forced to take very severe steps to slow the spread of the virus in Israel and that is what has happened. We have ordered quarantines and mass checkups that many other countries haven’t done.”

He said he would be the first to stop shaking hands, though he noted that avoiding all physical contact went against the nature of Israelis.

The Health Ministry announced several more recommendations Wednesday, including: a general recommendation to the public to keenly maintain hygienic practices; a recommendation to the Civil Service commissioner to stop all civil service members from travel abroad; a recommendation to people over the age of 60 and those with chronic health conditions (including immune disorders, diabetes, heart disease and the like) to avoid crowds and meetings with people who’ve recently been abroad, or who show symptoms of illness.

Earlier Wednesday the Health Ministry ordered hundreds of soccer fans to isolate themselves at home after it was discovered that a teenager who has been diagnosed with the disease attended a major game last week in Tel Aviv. It said anyone in his section of the stadium could be infected.

Israelis count the remaining ballots of Israelis under home quarantine after returning from coronavirus infected zones, at a tent in the central elections committee warehouse in Shoham, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

In a series of sweeping measures the ministry also instructed all 1,150 students at a high school attended by the teen, plus an elementary class in a different school where a fifth-grade teacher was diagnosed with the virus, to self-quarantine at home.

Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, previously banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In a statement last month, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad. Israel was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 93,000 worldwide and claimed over 3,200 lives, almost all of them in China.

The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.

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