Top Health Ministry official quits, says Israel on dangerous path in virus fight

Siegal Sadetzki warns government campaign to halt the spread of COVID-19 has ‘lost direction,’ her professional opinion no longer heeded

Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, Health Ministry director of public health, speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)
Prof. Siegal Sadetzki, Health Ministry director of public health, speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

The director of public health in the Health Ministry on Tuesday announced her resignation, criticizing the authorities’ handling of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and describing a chaotic and ineffective approach to tackling the crisis.

In a lengthy post to her Facebook page, Siegal Sadetzki wrote that she had notified ministry director-general Chezy Levy of her departure.

Sadetzki’s resignation came as infection rates have soared to some 1,000 a day, with critics accusing the government of a belated response to the sharp uptick in cases and lacing into the Health Ministry’s failure to carry out effective contact tracing and epidemiological probes to contain the outbreak.

“I acknowledge the privilege it was for me to play a significant role in leading the fight against the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, at critical moments for the State of Israel and its citizens,” Sadeszki wrote in her post.

But she warned: “Israel is heading to a dangerous place.”

From left to right: Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and head of public health services Sigal Sadetsky at a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Health Ministry)

“To my regret, for a number of weeks now, the handling of the outbreak has lost direction,” she wrote. “Despite systematic and regular warnings in the various systems, and discussions in various forums, we watch with frustration as the hourglass of opportunities runs low. Against this backdrop, I have come to the conclusion that in the newly created conditions under which my professional opinion is not accepted — I can no longer help to effectively cope with the spread of the virus.”

Sadetzki wrote that “too much time is invested in debates, discussions, consultants, forums and those acting for themselves, while the level of operation and details required for the success of the various operations do not receive the proper attention.”

Sadetzki also said that the turnover among people filling key roles in the battle against the virus is too high, with officials barely learning the ropes before being replaced by others, who then have to start their own learning process.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, July 6, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the Ynet website that he was not aware of Sadetzki’s intention to resign until he was asked about it during the interview with the media outlet. “I didn’t get any resignation letter from Professor Sadetzki,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein said he would meet with Sadetzki and “try to understand the reasons” for her leaving.

“She was in a not-so-simple situation for six months,” Edelstein said, commending Sadetzki for her “good professional work.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also thanked Sadetzki for her efforts to combat the virus.

Israel managed to drive down infection rates to the low dozens in May after a weeks-long lockdown, but the rates have rapidly surged since reopening the economy, overtaking the infections of the so-called first wave of the virus.

Restaurant, culture industries lament new rules

The government on Monday introduced a raft of restrictions aimed at halting the virus spread, though the sharp increase of cases prompted warnings that a second lockdown may be unavoidable.

Among the restrictions introduced on Monday were reducing restaurant and synagogue capacity, lowering the number of passengers on public transportation, hiking fines for not wearing face masks, and shutting down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

Israelis from the culture and arts industry clash with police during a protest outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on June 15, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leading figures from Israel’s performance arts and restaurant industry reacted with dismay at the orders.

The culture and events industries, which were among the last to be released from the initial lockdown, have protested in the past against what they say is a lack of government support while they were forced to remain closed. Those employed in the sectors have demanded financial aid similar to that provided to other areas of industry to assist with restarting the economy.

Noam Semel, director of the Habima national theater, told Army Radio on Tuesday that the cancellation of all shows was a “very big blow. The venues were quite full and suddenly we need to put everyone back on unpaid vacation.”

“Let us perform in an amphitheater, in open air, in accordance with recommendations,” Semel appealed. “We can protect the audience better than anyone else, we have inspectors and we won’t allow entry without a temperature check.”

Shai Berman, CEO of  the Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association, said in a statement to the station that the government decision was a “closure order for the restaurant industry in Israel.”

Diners eat their meals outside at a restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey, July 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

He said the government had failed to prepare for a second virus wave of the virus and was “a colossal failure from the economic point of view.”

Berman said that limiting the number of people who can be in a restaurant to 50 without taking into consideration the size of the premises was “hysteria and has no health justification in light of the tiny infection figures in restaurants.”

He said the government will have to find work for 150,000 employees in the industry who would lose their jobs.

“We are concerned for the fate of over 10,000 entrepreneurs in the field, who will take to the streets in the next few days with a sack of debt and without any social security, due to the Israeli government’s opposition to grant it.”

Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper said he was “deeply saddened” by the government decision but noted that with the worrying rise in infections there was no choice.

MKs Chili Tropper, left, and Meirav Cohen seen in the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We are in an ongoing crisis and we must all have personal responsibility to ensure public health,” he said in a statement.

“We will continue to work hard to ensure the existence of cultural institutions and we will work with the Finance Ministry to create financial security for the many workers in this field,” Tropper said.

Tropper said this ministry was preparing “a variety of activities and projects that will allow the citizens of Israel to continue to experience culture even during the coronavirus days and we will give an update about them soon.”

Israeli actress Gila Almagor attends the premiere of the musical show ‘Evita’ at Habima theatre in Tel Aviv, January 27, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Renowned Israeli actress Gila Almagor described the situation to Channel 13 as “terrible. There is not even anything on the horizon, there is no support from the state, there is nothing.”

Almagor said that last week she was met with sympathy in a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin and Tropper held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

“And what [happened?] Nothing” she told Channel 13. 

The Cultural and Event Industry Action Committee said in a statement to media that the government restrictions must come “alongside the promise and implementation of providing real financial compensation to 200,000 people who are at risk.”

“Our demand is clear: no promises — just money in our pocket until the entire industry as a whole returns to routine,” the committee wrote.

Israeli Union of Performing Artists chair Yaakov Mendel said in a statement to media, “This is a most terrible thing and it seems that they have taken care to extinguish even the light at the end of tunnel.”

Cameri Theater CEO Ran Guetta described the restrictions as “a tough decision with tough implications. But it is understood that health is above all, and we will accept and implement the instruction.”

The decision by the cabinet limits restaurants to 20 customers in indoor areas and 30 people in outdoor areas, with tables set at a distance from one another.

All public gatherings will be capped at 20 people, wearing face masks and keeping a distance of two meters.

All cultural performances are off, and event halls, clubs and bars will be closed, including in hotels. Organized sporting events can continue but without an audience.

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