Virus czar: Lockdown stricter than it should be, will have ‘tremendous’ costs

Ronni Gamzu says he recommended just tightening restrictions, but was rebuffed by government; respects final decision

Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The government’s coronavirus czar reiterated Thursday his opposition to the new lockdown restrictions set to be implemented Friday, saying the economic harm will be “tremendous.”

The harsh measures are set to come into force on Friday at 2 p.m., and will see nearly all businesses closed, prayers and public protests severely curtailed, public transportation scaled back dramatically and Israelis ordered to remain close to home with fewer exceptions than in the existing lockdown.

“I recommended a [slight] tightening of the lockdown, but the government decided otherwise and I respect that,” Gamzu said during a tour of Jerusalem’s virus-hit hotspots on Thursday.

“Obviously, when you lock down more tightly you slow the infection rate more significantly, but the economic cost is tremendous,” he said. “Even so, the government has the authority to make that call. It made the decision after careful consideration, and if they decided on a tighter closure, that’s okay. We’re going to go with that. It will help stop infections.”

Gamzu added: “The morbidity rate is very worrying. We could maybe have closed less, but it’s okay that the government made this decision. It’s a message to the public. If the government reached the point where it’s imposing such a hermetic seal of all commerce and economic activity, that should say something about how widespread the infections have become.”

Hospital team members in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The decision to tighten lockdown measures follows recommendations by the cabinet’s coronavirus committee on Wednesday night and was made in a cabinet vote Thursday morning. It is set to win final approval in Knesset legislation later Thursday.

Gamzu, a physician and director of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, reportedly told the cabinet that he didn’t believe a full lockdown of the economy was warranted, but wanted to achieve a “50 percent reduction” in economic activity that would dramatically reduce social contacts while allowing the partial lockdown to last for a long time. He had recommended “tightening the lockdown, and not shutting down the entire country,” he told reporters after the Thursday morning cabinet meeting.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagreed, officials said, preferring a comprehensive and immediate lockdown to dramatically reduce infection rates quickly. Netanyahu argued in the cabinet that the coming holidays — Yom Kippur begins Sunday evening and the eight-day Sukkot holiday begins October 2 — are periods when most Israelis won’t be working in any case. Imposing a lockdown over that period is less damaging to the economy than doing so after the holidays, he said.

“Throughout my career there were many times when I didn’t do what the professionals demanded, and I turned out to be 100 percent right,” Netanyahu was quoted by Hebrew media as telling cabinet ministers.

Gamzu toured Jerusalem’s hardest-hit neighborhoods on Thursday, including Shuafat in the city’s northeast, where he complained to accompanying reporters that lockdown guidelines were not being obeyed.

“I see all these people in the street without masks,” he lamented, “even elderly people who will get sick.”

The new restrictions come a week after Israel imposed a less severe lockdown and as new daily confirmed infections neared 7,000 on Wednesday for the second straight day.

Beginning Friday at 2 p.m., nearly all businesses will be closed, with the exception of specific companies and factories specifically designated as essential by the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. The decision exempts supermarkets and pharmacies from the closure, and allows restaurants to work on a home delivery basis only.

Nearly all public transportation will be closed, as will the last educational institutions still open — mainly special education programs and private preschools.

Israelis still won’t be allowed to travel more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. Police will be deployed on highways and at the entrances to cities and towns to keep residents from moving.

A classroom at an elementary school is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus in Tel Aviv, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The cabinet decision said officials from the Finance Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office and National Security Council will meet to set ground rules for which government agencies will close and which ones will remain operational, and at what capacities.

The cabinet is also reportedly considering closing Ben Gurion Airport to outgoing flights, but the decision was not included in Wednesday’s cabinet vote.

While ministers briefly considered declaring a “national emergency” to bypass the Knesset and impose the heightened restrictions, the new limits are nevertheless slated to come up in the Knesset plenum for approval on Thursday.

The final cabinet decision had its critics in both Likud and Blue and White.

Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud lambasted the shuttering of nearly all economic activity for two weeks, a decision that contradicted the recommendations of the Finance Ministry last week. Katz was one of the very few in the cabinet who voted against the shutdown.

Closed down cafes and restaurants in Tel Aviv, on September 22, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It’s possible to take steps to rein in the disease without critically hurting the factories and businesses of the private sector, the ones that aren’t open to the public and are careful to obey Health Ministry guidelines,” he said after the cabinet vote. “Israel’s economic resilience is part of its national resilience; it must be protected too.”

Science Minister Yizhar Shai of Blue and White left the cabinet meeting in protest, leaving a written vote against the decision. Shai, too, objected to the sweeping closure of the economy, which he said contradicted the recommendations of the professional echelon.

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron also protested the final decision as causing too much damage to the economy.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 54,364 people received test results on Wednesday and 6,808 were confirmed as carriers of the coronavirus. It was the second day in a row with over 6,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and officials have said they are especially worried about the 12.4% confirmation rate. Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto told lawmakers last week that restrictions should only be lifted when that rate drops below 7%.

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