The deputy director-general of the Health Ministry gave out quarantine waivers to several people in addition to a visiting billionaire, officials told a television network on Thursday.
Itamar Grotto’s job is reportedly under threat following the revelation that he granted Israeli-Cypriot billionaire Teddy Sagi’s request to be exempt from having to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in Israel during a recent visit.
Sources in Health Ministry told Channel 12 Grotto handed out other such approvals and would have given more, if not for the media attention.
“That was not the first time and if it wasn’t for the revelation, it would not have been the last,” a Health Ministry source told the station.
According to a Channel 12 news report Wednesday, Sagi first asked outgoing Health Minister director general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov to allow him to enter the country without having to self-quarantine for 14 days as all arrivals are required to do, but was turned down.
Sagi then turned to Grotto, Bar Siman-Tov’s deputy, who the network said approved the request.
The businessman, who owns the gambling company Playtech, then reportedly attended a rooftop party in Tel Aviv hosted by a real estate developer that allegedly violated the Health Ministry’s guidelines on large gatherings.
Sagi said he arrived in Israel legally and adhered to the instructions he was given, but the network said the Health Ministry was weighing filing a police complaint against him for violating quarantine.
According to a report by the Ynet news site on Thursday, which said it obtained the email in which Grotto approved the waiver, Sagi told the senior health official he had been infected with COVID-19 two months ago in London and recovered. He also submitted his antibodies test to the Israeli health official and underwent another coronavirus test days before his flight, which turned up negative, the report said. Sagi also argued in his request that quarantine was not necessary since he arrived from Cyprus, which has few cases.
Grotto refused to comment on the matter, telling journalists outside his home Thursday that their queries were an invasion of his privacy.
A senior Health Ministry official defended Grotto and alleged that Bar Siman-Tov was exacting “revenge” on him for “stealing the public’s attention” from himself during the pandemic.
“Prof. Grotto is an honest person and there is no doubt that this is a targeted attack against him,” the source told Channel 12. “Even if he made a wrong decision, this needs to be probed responsibly instead of hurrying to crucify him.”
The source said there has been tension between Bar Siman-Tov and Grotto since the latter was disappointed not to receive the outgoing director-general’s backing to replace him.
Bar Siman-Tov denied the claims, saying he had “responded to the point. There is nothing personal here and the considerations are purely professional.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he’d instructed Bar Siman-Tov to probe the matter.
“We’re calling on the entire public to observe the guidelines. This is a grave error in judgement that seriously harms public trust. I won’t act with forgiveness in such cases,” Edelstein wrote on Twitter.
The Ynet news site said Bar Siman-Tov had sent a “harsh” letter to Grotto demanding clarifications and urging him to resign if the accusations are true.
Bar Siman-Tov, said an inquiry into Grotto’s actions would be conducted “in an orderly manner.”
He told Channel 12 new Thursday afternoon that public trust in health officials is “our most important tool” in fighting the coronavirus and must not be eroded.
Grotto, an epidemiologist, has served as deputy director-general of the Health Ministry since 2017. He is the top physician in the public health system, as Bar Siman-Tov, an economist, has no medical background and is the first non-doctor to serve as director-general of the Health Ministry. Bar Siman-Tov tendered his resignation as the new government was formed last month and is set to be replaced by Prof. Chezy Levy, pending approval.
This would not be the first case of senior officials flouting coroanvirus restrictions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin were accused of apparently violating the strict curfew imposed on the country during the Passover holiday to prevent people hosting family gatherings and spreading the coronavirus. Rivlin later apologized.
Meanwhile, former health minister Yaacov Litzman, who caught the virus, was accused of attending prayer services after the were banned. He denied the accusation.
In recent days Israel has put the breaks on lifting some restrictions amid a resurgence of infections.
The Health Ministry on Wednesday said 175 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours. The number of active cases has surged to 2,869, after having dipped below 2,000 last month. The number of cases diagnosed in the first 10 days of June was 1,253, surpassing those in the entire month of May, which reported 1,186 cases. The death toll in Israel since the start of the pandemic stands at 299.