Israel media review

Strain in vain: What the press is saying on December 21

The London coronavirus mutation delivers a kick in the teeth to the vaccine’s shot in the arm, a 3rd lockdown may loom, and politicians make a deal that may be too much too late

People who came on a flight from England arrive at Jerusalem's Dan Panorama Hotel, which is being used as a quarantine facility, on December 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People who came on a flight from England arrive at Jerusalem's Dan Panorama Hotel, which is being used as a quarantine facility, on December 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Third time’s alarm: After the media went buck wild over hero Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brave decision to cut to the front of the vaccine line on live TV, gaining himself priceless airtime and the cover of every newspaper, the media has shifted to the drive to get everyone else vaccinated, fears stemming from the London mutation, and the closing in of a “third lockdown.”

  • “Third lockdown dilemma,” reads the top front page headline of Israel Hayom, reporting that ministers are trying to decide whether to pursue a “short lockdown,” or “restrictions for a longer time.”
  • Channel 12 news reports that Netanyahu is considering a “full economic lockdown already in the coming days,” spurred by fears of the London mutation.
  • He’s also trying to decide whether to convene the full cabinet, which would be needed for such a drastic step, or to call the smaller coronavirus cabinet as planned.
  • Kan reports that another factor in the decision on the possible full lockdown is whether there will be elections (more on that below). If elections are called, the lockdown will be longer than planned so that the infection rate is as low as possible by election day, to ensure as many people as possible can vote without having to jump through quarantine hoops.
  • Senior Health Ministry official Sharon Alroy-Pries tells Army Radio that she does not understand what the holdup is. “The numbers are heading to the same place as the second wave. There’s no reason to watch the numbers go up and wait. Let’s not wait another two weeks. This is costing us lives.”
  • “In the coronavirus cabinet they say ‘let’s wait,’ but I have a hard time understanding why we need to wait,” she adds. “I don’t see the vaccinations having an effect in the next few weeks. It will take two months.”

2. Why don’t you call someone who gives a shot: In the meantime, people are lining up to get shots en masse, which should probably not be a huge surprise.

  • Haaretz reports that 170,000 Israelis have already gotten “invitations” and scheduled vaccine appointments.
  • That’s despite reports indicating that the rush to schedule the appointments managed to bring down the phone systems of at least two health care providers, with many waiting for hours to get through.
  • “No system in the world can handle tens of thousands of calls a minute,” a Clalit spokesperson tells Haaretz. The spokesperson says that 850,000 members of the HMO, the country’s largest, are considered high priority and are thus supposed to be vaccinated in the first wave.
  • Horror stories of long waits on phones or internet confusion abound (and it’s likely unhelpful that some of the target population is not exactly known for tech literacy).
  • “For two days I’ve been trying for hours and hours to get through, and there’s nobody to talk to,” 64-year-old Maccabi member Dorit Gaon tells Yedioth Ahronoth. “Any platform I try I get to the same bot with the same canned answers. I just want to vaccinate and get back to my life.”
  • On top of all that, Channel 13 news reports that supplies to the HMOs are falling short of demand.
  • Nonetheless, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says he is “happy” to see the mad rush. “This is an expression of people’s will to vaccinate. There will be inoculations for everyone; we’re working with the HMOs to improve the processes,” he tells Army Radio.

3. Taken: Meanwhile, fears of the mutation have suddenly shut down Israel’s open skies, at least from certain locales, first and foremost the UK.

  • Yedioth labels as “a mockery” the government’s move to change its policy as a plane was about to depart from the UK, barring noncitizens from the flight and forcing Israelis who arrived to either go to a quarantine hotel or go back where they came from, adding that it’s the latest expression of what it says is the government’s failed policies at the airport.
  • “Chances are, the worrying English mutation has already been among us for a while,” writes the paper’s health correspondent Sarit Rosenblum in a scathing and opinionated report.
  • The paper also reports on arriving passengers being taken to a hotel to isolate, under the slightly overwrought quote-headline “They kidnapped us to a coronavirus hotel,” uttered by an unnamed passenger somehow overheard by one of the reporters. The story, however, focuses on two 11-year-old girls who had both been in London to visit their grandfathers and who were scared they would be taken to the hotel, but were eventually allowed to go home.
  • “This is simply kidnapping,” a passenger named Carmel tells Channel 12 news. “I live in England and came to visit my daughters and instead they kidnapped me to a hotel.”
  • Walla quotes another worried passenger annoyed at finding out upon landing that he also has to bunk at a hotel even though he lives alone. “I don’t know what kind of food they have at the hotel, and if it’s possible to bring stuff, food, if I can order food from outside,” the hungry man complains.
  • British-Israeli passenger Ellen Steel tells ToI that they were told before boarding that there was a chance they would have to go to a hotel and some decided at that point to cancel their trips. Non-Israeli citizens were forbidden from coming aboard.
  • “Quite a lot of people didn’t get on the flight and we had to wait for luggage to come off,” she says.
  • Ynet reports that some on an EasyJet flight tried to get the airline to fly them back to London rather than face the horrors of being locked in a Jerusalem hotel, but the pilot refused.

4. Startup mutation: Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch defends the decision to send those coming in from the UK to hotels, but also defends the decision to let others keep coming in by keeping the airport open.

  • “If this were a deadly virus, new, that created a crazy situation — we would not wait and we would close it,” he tells Kan.
  • Ash, the coronavirus czar, tells Army Radio that the mutation is probably already here anyway, an assessment echoed by Dorit Nitzan of the World Health Organization.
  • “The more serious the morbidity rate in Israel is, the more chances the virus has to develop mutations,” she says.
  • She also recommends that countries not close borders, as it’s probably too late.
  • Even if it’s not here yet, there’s no stopping it, immunologist Tomer Hertz of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev tells ToI’s Nathan Jeffay.
  • “If the strain is really that effective [in spreading], at some point it will arrive here in Israel as well,” he says. “We won’t be able to stop it.”
  • Boston-based doctor Ofer Levi tells Kan that “that there’s no proof that the new coronavirus strain will keep the vaccine from working effectively… We think the vaccine will protect against the mutation, but it’s impossible to know 100% since things are changing all the time.”

5. Stay of election: Levi might as well have been describing Israel’s political scene, where an 11th hour deal may have given the government a few weeks of breathing room, though few are willing to hazard a prediction that the agreement will actually keep elections away.

  • Walla’s Tal Shalev says that pessimism remains on both sides and things do not look overly sunny: “Less than an hour after they decided to extend the deadline to keep talks going, Likud and Blue and White launched a tweet war over the disagreements between them, signaling that the threat of elections has not really come off the table. The next two days should see more crises and drama.”
  • Israel Hayom notes that even if Likud and Blue and White have a deal, it’s unclear if all their Knesset members will fall in line and vote for it.
  • “This is not simple. There are too many things that need to be talked about,” an unnamed source involved in the talks tells the paper. “The gaps are quite large. It’s possible, but both sides need to decide that they totally want a compromise — and the feeling is that it’s not there yet. It seems the smell of elections is not strong enough in their noses and it will take another day.”
  • Kan reports that at least three Blue and White MKs — Assaf Zamir, Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa — plan on or are mulling opposing the deal, thus letting the government fall.
  • Haaretz’s Yossi Verter notes that there are a bunch more coalition MKs who won’t vote in favor, including those in Gideon Sa’ar’s camp. Plus, at least two coalition MKs (now three) are out with COVID-19.
  • “In other words, Netanyahu and Gantz will require MK Mansour Abbas and his [Ra’am] colleagues to help get any legislation passed, not just to delay elections but for the budget and the new government with a mutation of the rotation,” he writes. “Thus the nightmare of Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser will come to pass: The government will be established with votes from the Arabs.”
  • Blue and White head Benny Gantz takes a fistful of criticism from several corners of the media for agreeing to compromise with Netanyahu, especially regarding a reported deal to strip Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of the power to appoint a state prosecutor and attorney general, key positions that Likud is seen as wanting to control given Netanyahu’s legal woes.
  • ‘“It goes without saying that Nissenkorn, the only justification for [Blue and White]’s political existence, won’t agree to live with having his feathers plucked so thoroughly. He isn’t a chicken going to slaughter. There are some nice plants in the waiting room of his office; he doesn’t intend to turn into one of them,” writes Verter.
  • Zman Yisrael’s Shalom Yerushalmi calls the possible deal a “dark day” for the party.
  • “What’s most amazing and painful to hear is that Gantz has not been dragged into this deal with Netanyahu,” a frustrated Blue and White source is quoted telling him. “He’s leading it.”
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