Report: Finance Ministry proposes swift return to work for hundreds of thousands

Plans drawn up at Treasury said to seek extensive easing of restrictions, with warnings of economic disaster if workers kept home much longer; likely to clash with Health Ministry

File: Israelis play tennis on an empty road during lockdown following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, April 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
File: Israelis play tennis on an empty road during lockdown following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, April 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Teams in the Finance Ministry have drawn up plans for a gradual release of coronavirus social distancing restrictions on the population, which they hope to initiate immediately after Passover in a bid to jump-start the largely comatose national economy as soon as possible and prevent a financial disaster, according to multiple Hebrew media reports Saturday.

According to a report on Channel 13 news, the ministry seeks a return to work of hundreds of thousands of people shortly after the end of the holiday on Wednesday, warning of severe financial implications if they remain at home much longer.

Its plan calls for an immediate return to work of essential industries, under certain limitations (with young workers returning before older ones, who are more at risk); shops and shopping centers will remain closed for the time being; limitations on public movement will be eased in towns where the rate of infection is low; students up to age nine will return to school, with summer vacation largely canceled.

The Ynet new site reported that the plan calls for a return of 50 percent of nonessential workers to their places of employment by May 3, and a return of all workers by the end of May.

Channel 13 noted that the plan being promoted by the Treasury had not been coordinated with the Health Ministry, and the desire to quickly move toward a release of restrictions was likely to raise hackles with health officials who fear a hasty removal of limitations could lead to a new wave of infections.

According to an Education Ministry plan cited by Channel 12, children in special education frameworks will resume activity first, following by pre-K and kindergarteners who will return to class between 3-4 days out of the week, as a start. The report did not cite a time frame nor did it indicate when the plan would be presented.

This week saw a public spat between the ministries when Health Ministry leaders were quoted by multiple media outlets calling for an extension to a national lockdown of Israeli cities until the end of Passover next week — only for the idea to be shot down by officials in the Finance Ministry soon afterwards. The lockdown was eventually removed on Friday morning as planned.

Also Saturday, sources in the Finance Ministry told the Kan public broadcaster that over 400,000 people out of the approximately one million who have been laid off or placed on unpaid leave due to the coronavirus crisis will remain unemployed even after the closure is lifted.

Some 25% of Israelis are currently unemployed, up from just under 4% before the coronavirus outbreak. According to the report, a further three weeks of closure will increase the state budget deficit to 11% of GDP.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated a desire to begin easing restrictions on the population after Passover, though he has indicated a return to semi-normalcy would be slow, cautious and dependent on encouraging figures on infection rates.

On Friday he told a group of lone soldiers in a video message: “We are making a great effort so that after the holiday… we can gradually start releasing some citizens, some residents.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

He stressed that it would be “a gradual process that would take a long time.”

Quoting unnamed government officials, the Ynet news site reported Friday that there will be a gradual “liberation” of economic activity after Passover, with measures first loosening up for tech companies, financial firms and export-dependent industries.

Leisure and entertainment venues such as cafes, restaurants, malls, theaters, event halls and sports stadiums will stay closed during the first stage of the exit, while gatherings, including in synagogues, were expected to remain forbidden until September, the report said.

Once malls and restaurants do gradually reopen, they will be required to abide by certain precautions, with the officials quoted saying that businesses such as barbershops and beauty salons may be allowed to begin operating again if employees wear protective gear and adhere to Health Ministry directives.

There have been conflicting reports on when schools might open their doors again. Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 13 on Saturday that a full return would not happen anytime soon. But reports have indicated education officials may seek a phased approach, starting with special needs students and preschools, and gradually bringing back regular classes, possibly in study shifts or alternating days to reduce crowding.

Tighter restrictions are likely to apply to elderly people and those most at risk from COVID-19.

Illustrative: Police enforce a temporary road closure outside Jerusalem, April 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to a Channel 12 news report Friday, the number of new daily cases will have to be around 100 or lower before the government can begin implementing its exit plan.

In an effort to limit a fresh outbreak of the virus, the government this week barred Israelis from leaving their hometowns from Tuesday evening until Friday morning, while citizens were required to remain at home from Wednesday evening to Thursday morning, the first night of Passover.

Friday morning saw restrictions slightly eased in the virus-hit city of Bnei Brak, which had been under a tighter lockdown.

The Health Ministry has urged Israelis to continue maintaining social distancing regulations and not to become complacent.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said Thursday: “A gradual opening of the economy will only be possible if we all make sure to keep the rules, despite the hardships.”

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