Israelis once again completely locking down amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
The government approved lockdown will begin Thursday at midnight and include the shuttering of the entire education system, except special education.
When the government convened on Tuesday afternoon to discuss new restrictions there was already almost total consensus among the ministers. That’s because the Health Ministry reported 8,368 new cases the day before, including 828 in serious condition, among them more than 200 who were intubated. Of those screened for the virus, 7.4% tested positive.
Moreover, Coronavirus Commissioner Nachman Ash reported that some 30 cases of the British mutation were already discovered in Israel and that those individuals infected 189 others – an average of six people for every infected person.
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is spreading at top speed with the British mutation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during the meeting. “It has reached Israel and is claiming many lives.”
He said that the country needed to “impose a full lockdown immediately” and that “every hour that we delay, the disease spreads even quicker, and it is exacting a heavy price.”
Earlier Netanyahu said, “Hospitals are warning us that we are entering the most dangerous wave since the outbreak of the pandemic. The Health Ministry and the experts warn us that we are in a state of emergency and that if we do not act immediately, we will lose many hundreds of Israelis who will die – and even more.”
The lockdown means that all schools will be shut, except for special education. Gatherings will be reduced from 10 to five people inside and from 20 to 10 people outside. All businesses will be closed, except for those that sell essential products or offer essential services.
The ministers of health and finance will determine a list of what is considered essential.
Travel abroad will be allowed only for essential purposes. People who purchased tickets before the lockdown will still be able to get out of the country, but no new tickets will be honored.
Restrictions already in place will likewise continue, including that no one will be able to travel more than 1,000 meters from home. There will be no retail open and restaurants will be limited to delivery only. People will not be allowed to congregate in each other’s homes.
Individual sporting activities will still be allowed.
The ministers understood that there was little choice but to pass a closure, after hearing from a variety of health experts and officials that many lives were at stake.
According to Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of Public Health Services, the reproduction rate (R) stands at 1.27 and is higher than one in 95% of cities across Israel. She said 65% of the country is “red” and that “even if we shut down today, the numbers will continue to rise.”
The reproduction rate is the number of people that one sick person infects.
Alroy-Preis said that the real numbers are outpacing even the worst predictions made by the Health Ministry.
The medical professionals at the meeting, too, expressed an equally grim picture, according to leaks from the meeting.
According to Ash, an average of 30 people are dying a day from the virus.
“It is better to make the difficult decision now and if there is a dramatic change, we will make a change,” said Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Clalit Health Services and chairman of the National Expert Advisory Panel to the Government on COVID-19 at the meeting. He said that it would be impractical at this stage to put in place a differentiated model with most of the country marked orange or red.
“When we say closure, we mean the most dramatic lockdown that Israel can handle,” stressed Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science. “Without sharp measures, there is no chance of stopping all this illness.”
“We are already at the peak of serious patients today and the hospital system will find it difficult to give treatment to both coronavirus patients and other patients at the same time,” said Dr. Zeev Feldman, chairman of the Organization of the State Employed
Physicians of Israel and deputy president of the Israeli Medical Association. “My cry rises from the corridors of hospitals flooded with patients [and] medical teams stretched to their limits.”
“Friends, you need to understand well what the price is of doing nothing today: hundreds of dead, thousands in serious condition and tens of thousands sick,” Edelstein said earlier at a press briefing.
At the meeting, he noted that for the first time the heads of the local authorities want to lockdown. He said that the same mayors and heads of trade and industry that used to attack him and his policies are not demanding the country lockdown.
Even the finance and education ministers, who just days before were opposed to such moves, voted in favor of the lockdown.
“Everyone shows that the situation today is worse than ever when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, vaccinations are a great thing, but it makes it difficult to motivate closure and enforcement,” said Finance Minister Israel Katz.
Regarding keeping preschools open, he said that “the finance ministry will not be more difficult than the Education Ministry.”
Katz was referring to a statement made by Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who said that “The education system is the largest system in the State of Israel and encompasses almost 30% of the citizens of the State of Israel, most of them young people.
“I understand my responsibility to navigate the education system I am in charge of so that it will assist in the national effort to create a full, inclusive and complete closure,” Gallant said. “In the presentation, I presented to you and in what I said, I made it clear that schools and educational institutions are not a source of infection, but a curbing cause of illness.
“Despite this, if Israeli students study extensively, a general closure will not be possible,” he continued. “This is what we have witnessed in recent weeks.”
As such, he said that he would agree to “harness the entire education system for the national need of curbing the spread of the pandemic.” He also asked that the lockdown be used to vaccinate educational staff so they will be on the road to immunity when the closure is lifted.
“We must explain to the public that this closure does not correct past mistakes,” stressed Science and Technology Minister Yizhar Shay.
“It addresses the possible danger of the British mutation and the catastrophe that could occur here in a few weeks if not for the preventative measures we are discussing tonight. The public must understand the danger and cooperate as much as it can.”
He also asked that the next two weeks be used to formulate an exit strategy from the third lockdown.
Only MK Dudi Amsalem voted against the closure.
So far, 1.5 million people have been vaccinated. The health funds are now focused on preparing to wind down phase one of the country’s vaccination campaign and provide medical personnel, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions their second dose of the vaccine in the coming weeks.
It is expected that for Israel to reach herd immunity, that at least five million Israelis will need to have been vaccinated or have been infected with coronavirus and recovered, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said at the meeting. He estimated that 1.8 million
Israelis would have received both doses of the vaccine by the end of January.