Opposition chiefs slam new lockdown measures; 1,832 new infections over past day

Lapid criticizes government for approving restrictions in middle-of-the-night meeting, says it ‘has gone off the rails’; doctor: Decisions made ‘without any epidemiological basis’

People wearing protective face masks pass a billboard in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
People wearing protective face masks pass a billboard in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Leading opposition figures on Friday assailed the government over a raft of new lockdown measures to curb the record increases in new coronavirus cases, which ministers approved overnight and which will take effect at 5 p.m.

The criticism came as Health Ministry figures showed 1,832 new infections were confirmed over the past 24 hours and three more deaths were recorded overnight.

Among the new restrictions were further limitations on gatherings, barring restaurants from offering on-site dining in an open-ended ban, and ordering the closure of most businesses over the weekend. Initial reports Thursday said ministers would approve full lockdowns during weekends beginning Friday, but plans to close beaches and restrict movement were shelved until next week.

“An entire country is trying to understand the guidelines for the weekend and isn’t able to. An entire country is trying to understand why decisions are made in the middle of the night without any data and isn’t able to. An entire country is trying to understand why [ministers] are ignoring doctors and economists who say this is complete chaos and aren’t able to,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter.

He added: “The government has gone off the rails. It’s lost the trust of the public.”

Lapid said what was needed to fight the pandemic was the appointment of an official to manage Israel’s response to the virus, a widely backed proposal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have resisted. He also said “organized data, a strategy and clear explanations to the public is needed.”

MK Avigdor Liberman, head of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, accused the government of constantly making “bizarre decisions” regarding further restrictions.

“This night we again got a taste of the managerial amateurism and lack of professionalism by this bullshit government,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is the truth they don’t tell you: This government has no data about the source of infections and even when there is, they ignore it.

Liberman was alluding to Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi’s recent comment regarding claims that some Israelis didn’t have enough money for food due to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic was “bullshit.” Hanegbi later apologized for the remarks.

“Instead of dealing with the failures, they put the public into a panic, unnecessarily throw around money to lower the level of protest and then impose restrictions without a meticulous examination of the data, rather relying on ‘common sense’ and [Interior Minister Aryeh] Deri, who told Netanyahu that the beaches during the weekend are like a can of sardines,'” Liberman said.

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Maariv newspaper conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, criticized the government for ordering restrictions, “without any epidemiological basis,” and making the decision to close beaches starting next week, noting the virus was likely to spread in closed areas rather than in open ones.

“National security is also mental and economic health,” Levine, an epidemiologist with the Hadassah School of Public Health, told the Kan public broadcaster. “A lockdown in homes can achieve the opposite goal and increase infections.”

While stressing Israelis should take precautions against the virus that go beyond the Health Ministry guidelines, he slammed what he termed an “aggressive, opaque and detached approach” to containing the outbreak. Regarding a potential decision to close summer schools and other educational programs, Levine noted younger children are believed to be less susceptible to contracting the virus and spreading it to others.

“I thought that lessons were learned from the first wave but it appears that it isn’t the professional echelon that makes the decisions. If the public feels that the decisions are arbitrary, it won’t listen to them,” he warned.

Separately, Channel 12 news reported that during the overnight cabinet meeting, which was held on the Zoom video conferencing application, ministers objected to a lack of more specific data on infections. Though Netanyahu acknowledged this shortcoming, he appeared to dismiss the ministers’ concerns.

“It’s true there’s no epidemiological information telling us where infections were according to branches [of the economy]… but only by areas,” he was quoted saying. “I ask to get off the matter. We’ll use common sense to make decisions because we need to take urgent steps to deal with the situation.”

He also reportedly criticized leaks from the meetings, as media outlets published quotes from ministers in real time and photos of screens showing ministers on the call.

In one case, the wife of Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir shared a video in which Netanyahu can be heard saying, “there are serious dilemmas but I agree that we have more or less exhausted the issue at the moment.”

A number of ministers also pushed back during the meeting on plans to shutter educational programs, with a statement from Netanyahu’s office afterwards saying he and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will decide over the weekend whether to close them.

“Within three weeks we’ll be at 1,600 in serious condition if we continue down this path without new restrictions,” Netanyahu warned at the start of the cabinet meeting. “If we don’t flatten the curve, we’re putting many Israelis in danger.”

According to Channel 12 news, Health Ministry officials told cabinet ministers that Israel could see 20 coronavirus deaths a day next month if the rate of new infections isn’t curbed. The ministry has previously taken flak for what were seen as highly over-pessimistic forecasts, including predicting last month that as many as 5,000 people could require ventilators during a second wave.

Meanwhile, Gantz has proposed that lockdowns be imposed on week nights as a means to improve social distancing while minimally impacting the economy, Channel 12 said. It was not clear whether he was proposing the measure instead of weekend lockdowns or in addition.

Demonstrators protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 16, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn insisted on Thursday he would ensure that any restrictions don’t limit political protests, amid recent demonstrations against the government’s coronavirus policies as well as rallies against the premier due to his indictment on corruption charges.

The cabinet meeting came as Israel confirmed a record 1,939 new cases in 24 hours on Thursday evening.

As of Friday morning, there were 25,636 active cases in Israel. Among those currently sick, 213 were in serious condition, including 58 on ventilators. Another 120 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic.

Three more fatalities were reported, bringing the death toll to 387.

Of the 46,546 people to test positive for the coronavirus in Israel since the start of the pandemic, 20,523 have recovered. The ministry also said 29,504 tests were performed on Thursday.

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