PM says virus hotspots to be locked down, may fast-track phone tracing law

PM says virus hotspots to be locked down, may fast-track phone tracing law

Parts of Tiberias, Elad and Bat Yam reportedly being considered for new restrictions; Netanyahu says cabinet will discuss ‘digital means’ if infection rates continue upward trend

Police officers patrol on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on June 23, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers patrol on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on June 23, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday announced plans to declare “restricted zones” in areas that have seen a spike of virus infections, as well as apparent plans to renew a controversial Shin Bet tracking program for virus carriers if rates continue to rise.

“We will make an announcement today on restricted areas in which there are high infection rates,” wrote Netanyahu on Twitter, without detailing the regulations or specifying the areas under consideration.

“If the rate of infection continues [to rise], we will expedite the process of bringing the digital means to the approval of the cabinet before Sunday,” the prime minister wrote, apparently referring to the Shin Bet program.

Israel has seen the number of new COVID-19 cases climb sharply over the last two weeks, stoking fears of a “second wave” and leading the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday there were 377 virus cases diagnosed over the previous 24 hours. The death toll remained at 307.

Illustrative — Ultra Orthodox Jewish men at the Tomb of Maimonides compound in Tiberias, northern Israel, on May 22, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

The figures showed a continuation of the upward trends of the past week, which has seen 200-300 cases a day on most days and a steady increase in the number of patients in serious condition.

Hebrew-language media reported that some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the northern city of Tiberias that have seen a steep rise in infections are being considered for the restrictions, as well as some areas of the central cities of Bat Yam and Elad.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

A military task force earlier on Tuesday warned of possible outbreaks in a number of areas, including Bat Yam, leading to the mayor to call for the beaches there to be closed again. There are particular concerns about the beachfront town, which has a relatively older population in comparison with other outbreak areas.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told reporters during a tour of virus facilities in the center of the country that the government has no intention of announcing a “total lockdown,” but rather will introduce local restrictions.

“It may be that during the course of the day we will declare restricted zones to cut the infections and I call on residents to act with understanding. We won’t have a total lockdown but we need cooperation,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during a visit to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, June 23, 2020 (Flash90)

A military unit released a number of reports earlier Tuesday, including one that promoted the use of geographical phone data to track coronavirus patients by employing Shin Bet procedures that are usually reserved for counterterrorism operations, apparently backing calls by Netanyahu for the reactivation of the security service surveillance program.

The Shin Bet program — which used vast amounts of cellular phone and credit card data to track the movement of coronavirus patients and those in close contact with them — ended earlier this month, nearly three months after it began.

The program had been subject to Knesset oversight, but the High Court of Justice ordered the government to craft a law — instead of a temporary emergency regulation — to give the Shin Bet permission to use these tools. Ministers decided to call off the program after having failed to write a bill legislating how it would operate.

The head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, has opposed legislation regulating the Shin Bet’s role in the program that would allow the service to use sensitive personal data to track coronavirus carriers, according to leaks from the high-level cabinet forum dealing with the pandemic response. He reportedly believes a private firm should be given the power instead.

The military report also backed the use of technology to try to reduce the spread of the infection, via apps on phones (such as the Israeli Magen program), and the scanning of QR codes at the entrances to indoor spaces as most transmission appears to take place in confined areas.

A separate report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center also warned that Israel could see a doubling in the number of active coronavirus cases within a week.

According to the report, Israel’s infection rate is now increasing by around eight percent per day and the number of active patients is currently doubling every nine days.

The center reports to the government and is run out of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence unit but is supposed to work with the Health Ministry.

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