Total lockdown can be avoided if public obeys orders — top health official
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Coronavirus crisis

Total lockdown can be avoided if public obeys orders — top health official

Health Ministry deputy head says Israelis appeared to get message about staying inside on Wednesday, after minister warned shut down enforced by police ‘inevitable’

A merchant selling alcogel hand sanitizer to passersby in central Jerusalem on March 18, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)
A merchant selling alcogel hand sanitizer to passersby in central Jerusalem on March 18, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Israel is heading toward a total lockdown of the population to prevent further spread of the deadly new coronavirus, but it can still be avoided if the public obeys current orders to stay inside, a top health official said Thursday.

The Health Ministry introduced sweeping new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus on Tuesday, instructing Israelis not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary, but stopping short of imposing a mandatory lockdown.

Itamar Grotto, the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, told Army Radio that officials would prefer to take the drastic measure to stamp out the virus.

“We would have liked to have a full lockdown, but if the pubic listens to orders there will be less need for it,” Grotto said.

Officials have indicated a lockdown is likely to be imposed in the coming days. On Tuesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan instructed the Israel Police to prepare for a complete lockdown of the country, calling such a move “inevitable.”

A sealed-off playground by the beach in Tel Aviv following the government’s instructions to avoid public spaces, as the number of those infected by the coronavirus keeps growing, March 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Despite the directives, which allow leaving the home for some essential needs and are not enforced by police, many Israelis have continued going out, including to leisure areas like beaches and parks, sparking calls from officials to not treat the crisis as a vacation.

Grotto noted that on Wednesday there was a change in public attitude toward government ordered restrictions, apparently referring to a noticeable decrease in the number of people on the streets following days in which many had treated orders to not go in to work as an opportunity to spend time out of doors.

Screen capture from video of Deputy Director-General of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto. (Twitter)

As of Wednesday afternoon, Israel had 433 cases of COVID-19, including six people in serious condition. Health officials fear the number may continue to skyrocket and eventually overwhelm hospitals.

Grotto warned Thursday that Israel could soon see its first deaths from the virus.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said a total lockdown would still include the ability for Israelis to leave their homes for short periods, but not to congregate in any way.

“Going out for a walk will be possible, but anything that leads to any kind of gathering of people, or grouping together, will be forbidden,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.

Israelis wait in line outside a bank near Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Police, he said, would enforce the restrictions to prevent any such gathering.

Bar Siman-Tov has previously warned that that thousands of Israelis could die of the virus if anti-contagion measures applied so far were not adhered to.

Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Ministers Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Erdan requested that police and security chiefs urgently prepare and present to him a detailed plan for implementing a countrywide lockdown, in which only essential workers will be allowed to leave their homes, while other citizens will only be allowed out in order to buy supplies and for medical treatment. If a lockdown is ordered, police will be placed in charge of enforcement, while the IDF Home Front Command will be in charge of the supply of essential items.

Israel has already ordered all leisure and recreation sites closed, along with schools, universities and kindergartens. Many places of work have also been instructed to have employees work from home where possible, or put them on leave.

On Wednesday the Health Ministry announced it has begun using mass surveillance tools to retrace the movements of coronavirus carriers and had already informed 400 people in contact with them that they must enter quarantine.

The electronic tracking program, which is being conducted by the Shin Bet security service for the ministry, has faced harsh criticism, including by members of the government, and its legality is currently being challenged in the High Court of Justice.

The measures also allow the police to use phone data to enforce quarantines or shelter in place orders. The government has yet to approve a mechanism to punish rule-breakers.

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