Sick and tired of being sick and tired: 5 things to know for July 20
Israel media review

Sick and tired of being sick and tired: 5 things to know for July 20

Amid pandemic and nurses strike, government wavers on virus rules and stimulus checks; there’s still no virus czar; and Shin Bet surveillance proves faulty

Nurses from Hadassah Medical Center protest against their work conditions at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem on July 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Nurses from Hadassah Medical Center protest against their work conditions at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem on July 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

1. What will remain open? Sowing even more confusion on the new emergency regulations, the government appears to be backtracking on its order to close restaurants, according to comments by a top Likud lawmaker to a Knesset panel on Monday afternoon.

  • Miki Zohar tells the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee — which is reviewing the cabinet decision and will decide whether to approve it — that the government is amenable to allowing restaurants to continue outdoor service and is not opposed to keeping pools and beaches open over the weekends, though it is insistent that gyms be shuttered.
  • The statement is a reversal of the government’s order last week. Amid an ongoing rise in national infection rates, regulations announced in the early hours of Friday morning severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the open-ended closure of restaurants’ in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move was delayed until Tuesday, after massive backlash by restaurateurs), ordered the open-ended closure of gyms and exercise/dance studios, and imposed multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks, and other recreational activities.
  • Zohar’s comment comes after daily infections drop by nearly half on Monday, to 951, though it remains unclear whether that is an outlier or a trend that will continue.
  • The coronavirus parliamentary panel is to vote later on Monday whether to approve the government rules.

2. No government cash for the rich: In another about-face, the government changed its position on stimulus checks for all Israelis, with those receiving welfare benefits expected to receive more, and the rich exempted.

  • The NIS 6 billion plan was announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week and was widely criticized for its failure to distinguish between income levels of recipients.
  • Netanyahu announces the changes after meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, and Economy Minister Amir Peretz to hammer out a compromise, after the cabinet approved a broad framework of the plan on Sunday.
  • Under the new proposal, those who earn more than NIS 640,000 ($186,000) per year will not receive a government check, nor will public servants whose monthly salaries exceed NIS 30,000.
  • Israelis eligible for welfare benefits will receive a fatter check, Netanyahu’s office confirms.

3.Mad as hell and just won’t take it anymore: Nurses across Israel launched a strike on Monday morning over their working conditions and serious manpower shortages, after talks with the treasury fail to yield an agreement.

  • National Nurses Union head Ilana Cohen writes in the Israel Hayom daily that the manpower crisis predates the coronavirus pandemic, but has worsened considerably since the virus hit Israel, as hundreds of medical staff are sent into quarantine on a regular basis.
  • “Unfortunately, the current situation for nurses is akin to sending people to war — and then shooting them,” she writes.
  • The strike is backed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who says, “Dear nurses, my friends, I am with you in your struggle,” during a tour of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital. Medical residents also strike in solidarity for two hours on Monday morning.
  • During the strike, surgery rooms will operate with reduced staff, as they do on weekends, meaning that non-urgent operations planned for the afternoon will be canceled. All hospital wards housing patients will similarly operate on weekend protocol with reduced staff, with the exception of the wards housing coronavirus patients. COVID-19 tests will also continue with full staff.
  • Nurses will also strike in all health maintenance organizations (HMOs), with service given in reduced form like during weekends. The services that will be available are home treatments, insulin therapy, fertility treatments, oncology treatments, gastroenterology institutes, and daycare centers.
  • It isn’t just nurses, either: Social workers across the country entered the 14th day of their nationwide strike on Monday, with no solution in sight. Israel Hayom reports that talks between the representatives of the treasury and the social workers’ union about their wages and caseloads are deadlocked.

4. Who will be the new virus czar? Prof. Gabi Barbash, a former Health Ministry director-general and Channel 12 resident expert since the pandemic began, is widely reported to be the prime candidate to lead the government’s virus response.

  • There is no single figure managing the ongoing campaign, which is being 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.
  • The lack of a central figure or office running the government response has been the source of criticism in recent weeks.
  • Writes Amos Harel, in Haaretz: “Based on his comments throughout the crisis, it seems Barbash is on the hardline side of the scale, when it comes to taking wide-ranging steps to fight the virus. He supported imposing a wide lockdown during the first wave in March of this year, had reservations about the fast easing of restrictions in April and May, and more than once criticized the government and Health Ministry for their slow, convoluted response to developments. This was not only said on-air; Barbash was invited throughout the crisis to several consultations with the prime minister.”
  • Veteran Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea says Barbash “is, in my opinion, the right man [for the job]. He is on top of developments, in Israel and abroad; is familiar with the ins and outs of the healthcare system, both as former Health Ministry director and the director of the Ichilov Medical Center; is an experienced and effective manager; a fantastic presenter on television; is well known to the public, trustworthy and communicative, and no less importantly — is not seen as a threat to Netanyahu.”
  • Channel 12 reported on Monday that Netanyahu is considering offering Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen the job.
  • Harel, in his column, also notes that the government’s failure to set up an effective contact tracing system has hampered its ability to make policy decisions, since the source of the vast majority of new COVID-19 infections remains unknown. The Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee on Sunday received partial data, which appeared to signal that beaches and gyms pose little danger of infection, but accounted for less than a third of the new cases, he notes. While those figures were touted by some lawmakers, “what stood out was primarily the immense lack of information, which also stems from the problems of investigating [the contacts], on the source of infection.”
  • In addition, reports Haaretz, the Shin Bet security service’s surveillance system, which is controversially tracking Israelis to monitor virus carriers and those exposed to them, is widely off the mark. Citing figures presented to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Haaretz reports that 58% of the 34,000 Israelis who have appealed the Shin Bet orders to enter quarantine have been permitted to leave isolation after it was determined that a mistake had been made.
  • The report says 8,135 of the over 50,000 virus cases have been detected through the Shin Bet program.

5. Winter is coming: In addition to the nurses strike, the vacancy of a virus czar, the spiraling virus rates, and a lack of clear government policy on lockdowns, Israel Hayom writes that Israel faces another looming health crisis: its flu shot shipment, it writes, is expected to come only in late October, a month and a half late, amid a global shortage.

  • “The delay in the vaccines’ [arrival] is liable to cause a situation similar to last year, in which the flu season already began before the public managed to get vaccinated and develop antibodies,” it reports, coinciding with the expected “third wave” of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto is quoted as saying the government will ask the Mossad intelligence service and Foreign Ministry to pull strings to obtain more vaccines.
  • Meanwhile, Yedioth leads its daily coverage with figures on infections in schools, signaling the state will be hard-pressed to open in the fall. It reports that 66% of those infected in schools were students, and that the older the students, the more people they subsequently infected.
  • The report also says that 65% of high school students at Jerusalem’s Gymnasia, which saw a major outbreak, were asymptomatic.
  • Despite the mass infections at the Jerusalem high school, Army Radio late Sunday posts footage of an end-of-year party at the Gymnasia, in which teachers and students are seen without masks and failing to observe social distancing.
  • Separately, the Health Ministry is weighing shortening the quarantine period from two weeks to 10-13 days, Israel Hayom reports. The ministry is also mulling whether to declare those with COVID-19 but no symptoms healthy after 14 days, rather than the current 30-day period, without their undergoing another virus test. A decision will be announced in the coming days, it says.
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