The directors-general of the health and finance ministries got into a heated shouting match during deliberations on new restrictions to contain the coronavirus that were set to be approved Tuesday but were ultimately delayed, Israeli television reported.
As the number of Israelis infected with the virus has risen, the Health Ministry’s Moshe Bar Siman-Tov has reportedly been pushing for a full lockdown, with all Israelis kept at home in all but exceptional circumstances, a possibility Shai Babad of the Finance Ministry has opposed due to concerns over the economic fallout.
Long hours of talks were held Monday and Tuesday, and incessant media reports anticipated imminent new restrictions on public movement, including a possible complete lockdown for elderly people, but an announcement of the new regulations, scheduled for Tuesday evening, was not made.
The new rules might reportedly also include a ban on outdoor exercise and a limit on residents from strolling more than 100 meters away from their homes. They could also see new restrictions on restaurant takeouts and public transportation further scaled back, if not halted entirely, the various unconfirmed reports said.
During a cabinet meeting Monday, Bar Siman-Tov warned there was “no margin of error,” that a full lockdown was vital right away, and that only after Passover next month could the government risk adopting more lenient measures, according to Channel 12 news.
“That’s not true! That’s not true!” Babad was quoted saying in response. “You don’t understand the impact of the last two days on the economy. There are other solutions besides a lockdown.”
Bar Siman-Tov responded that economic considerations should not factor into the deliberations, reportedly warning, “There’s a situation here that if we don’t take control of it, there won’t be any economic deliberation. We’ll collapse.”
The network said Babad fired back that Israel would face “devastating damage to the economy” if further workplaces were ordered closed and claimed there were epidemiologists who held different views than those Bar Siman-Tov was presenting.
At this point in the meeting, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Babad to calm down, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if Babad actually knew such epidemiologists he should invite them into the discussions.
In a response to the TV report, Babad said there was “full cooperation” between the two ministries.
“Any attempt to create a rift between me and the director-general of the Health Ministry does not match the reality and is unacceptable at this period of crisis,” he said.
Separately, the TV channel reported that government ministers were critical of Bar Siman-Tov and his decision-making process on the outbreak.
“Anyone who hears Moshe Bar Siman-Tov can go crazy. He goes with extreme scenarios and isn’t prepared to hear opinions of other experts with a different approach. In this way he’s turning lack of tests into a worldview,” an unnamed minister was quoted saying.
This minister also appeared to criticize Netanyahu. “He’s ultimately speaking ‘for the record’ so that the minutes [of the meetings] will show that he listened to the professionals,” the minister said.
Bar Siman-Tov, a trained economist and the first non-doctor to head the ministry, has faced criticism from some over his lack of medical experience.
In a letter Monday, dozens of medical department and clinic managers called for new leadership at the Health Ministry, saying it should be led by medical professionals, but did not name Bar Siman-Tov or Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who also has no medical training.
However, Ronni Gamzu, director of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv and a former director-general of the Health Ministry, defended Bar Siman-Tov, telling Ynet that what the country needed was not decades of medical experience, but rather “administration and balance between health and real life.”
He noted that Bar Siman-Tov had rightly pushed for Israel to close its borders to those coming from China and Italy in the early days of the virus outbreak in those countries, even though he was criticized for the impact it would have on tourism and the aviation industry.
The medical professionals’ letter came the same day as the publication of a state comptroller report, prepared before the coronavirus struck, that found the country’s health system was not prepared for the outbreak of a pandemic. The report highlighted a lack of hospital beds, isolation rooms, ill-equipped intensive care units and a lack of cooperation between the Health and Defense ministries.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 1,930 people in Israel have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and three people have died.