Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov suggested Friday that some restrictions on the public and economic activity could begin to be lifted after the Passover holiday in mid-April, if Israel’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic is deemed to be succeeding by then.
Speaking to Channel 12 TV, Bar Siman-Tov was asked if people could be let out after the holiday, given that there were signs the rate of infections had stabilized.
“We are very privileged and lucky to be able to have that conversation,” Bar Siman-Tov said, noting that in countries like the US, Italy and Spain the discussions were about who to give ventilators to.
“I really hope that if our collective efforts — those of the authorities and the people staying home — if they continue for the next two weeks and continue to bear fruit, we will be able, after Passover, to begin a return to economic activity in a measured and controlled way,” he said.
Bar Siman-Tov’s comments were especially notable given that, earlier this week, he had predicted thousands of Israelis would die from the pandemic, and amid growing concern over the number of confirmed carriers in ultra-Orthodox cities, especially Bnei Brak. “I wish you will look back on this in a few weeks and make fun of me, but I can’t see us ending this ordeal without many victims,” Bar Siman-Tov had said on Monday. “Unfortunately I still think the reality we will have to deal with will be thousands of dead.”
His far more upbeat remarks came a day after National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat reportedly told cabinet ministers there are promising signs that the rate of coronavirus infections in Israel is slowing following the implementation of strict restrictions across the country.
Speaking at Thursday night’s cabinet meeting, which authorized a closure on the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, Ben-Shabbat said that “there are signs that the rate of infection is slowing down,” according to Channel 12. However, he urged caution, saying this “should not be seen as a steady trend.”
Three men and a woman in their seventies died of the coronavirus on Friday in Israel, bringing the national death toll from the pandemic to 39, as the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases hit 7,428.
However, Channel 12’s political analyst Dana Weiss said Friday that there were unlikely to be any significant easing of personal restrictions, quoting a senior government official as saying that Israel was still in the middle of implementing restrictions, not talking about exits.
“It’s better to go crazy at home than die in a hospital,” she quoted the official as saying.
Channel 12 reported that top officials have been using a contagion model developed by the Ness Ziona Institute for Biological Research, which showed Israel had been on the way to containing the virus until the Purim festivities last month.
Israeli authorities’ main fear at the moment is that the Passover festival, which starts April 8, could see a new surge in infections. Social distancing enforcement over the holiday was expected to be strictly enforced, ensuring the public remains home.
The model also identified the two biggest risks at the moment: the spread of the disease within ultra-Orthodox communities and at old age homes.
On Friday the government tasked the Israel Defense Forces with formally providing “civil assistance” to residents of Bnei Brak, a major hotspot of the virus, as police established checkpoints at the entrances and exits of the ultra-Orthodox city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
With its population of 200,000, Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.
On Friday, the Health Ministry said there were 966 confirmed virus cases in Bnei Brak, 418 of which were identified in the past three days.
The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, confirmed that the military anticipated being sent to additional parts of the country that were struggling with the pandemic, noting the towns of Elad, Migdal Ha’Emek and parts of Jerusalem were possible locations.
The other major concern was in centers that care for the elderly.
A senior official in the Health Ministry, speaking to Channel 13 on the condition of anonymity, admitted that his office is not equipped to deal with the growing number of outbreaks taking place in nursing homes.
As a result, the Home Front Command will be taking over management of the country’s 700 nursing homes beginning next week, though the soldiers will not be interacting directly with the residents, Channel 13 said.
Also Friday, Bar Siman-Tov defended his boss Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. The minister who was diagnosed with the disease late Wednesday, sending almost all the Israeli politicians, officials and health chiefs who are leading the country’s struggle against the pandemic, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, into precautionary quarantine.
TV reports alleged Litzman flouted his own ministry’s rules, taking part in public prayers even after they were banned, leading to widespread calls for him to be fired.
“I spoke to Minister Litzman. He told me that he had not broken any Health Ministry regulations and that he attended the prayer services before they were banned, and I believe that is the situation,” Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12.
“Lets look at the situation as it is. Minister Litzman was the first to say we should close the skies to China and then with other countries. He was the one who signed the order to close the yeshivas and the kollel study groups and the torah schools,” Bar Siman-Tov said after being asked to defend Litzman’s work during the crisis.
“He took part in the difficult decisions like closing synagogues, mikvehs, weddings and other religious services,” he added.
“We are now at a time when we need to extend a hand to the Haredi communities dealing with the illness, because we are all in this together. Accusations and the blame game won’t help anybody,” Bar Siman-Tov said.
At a cabinet meeting 10 days ago, Litzman reportedly urged Netanyahu to allow synagogues to stay open. “As long as you have fewer than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” Litzman said, according to a leaked transcript.
But Netanyahu was adamant. “There is a need. There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection,” he said. “There is no choice.”
Unnamed officials at Litzman’s ministry on Thursday also charged that he is at least partly to blame for the spiraling situation in Bnei Brak, saying that the minister’s refusal to institute restrictions on movement before the Purim holiday last month enabled mass celebrations to go ahead, which allowed the virus to spread. They also slammed his refusal to close yeshivas and mikvehs “until it was too late.”