Bennett warns: Holiday lockdown would destroy country’s future

Written by on August 19, 2021

A lockdown would destroy Israel’s future, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday, as the number of patients in serious conditions reached 578, more than 100 of whom are on ventilators, while the ultra-Orthodox sector is experiencing a spike in morbidity a few days after the beginning of its school year.

“Even though a lockdown is the simplest step for the government, we have chosen the hard way: to take many dozens of measures that together may help us avoid a closure,” Bennett said. “A lockdown is the last resort, only when all the other options have been exhausted.”

The prime minister noted that previous lockdowns cost the country some NIS 200 billion, and that if another one was to be imposed in Israel, the country risks not being able to afford other essential costs, such as those of important military equipment or treatments for other diseases.

Also on Wednesday, coronavirus commissioner, Prof. Salman Zarka said “we are at war” with the pandemic and that the next two weeks will be critical.

“Our morbidity is rising day by day,” Zarka said, speaking before the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee, which convened to discuss the new regulations that came into effect on Wednesday.

“Looking at the data from this morning we cannot just say ‘maybe,’” he said. “This ‘maybe’ is worth the lives of the citizens of Israel.”

More than 120 people have succumbed to the virus in the past week, more than double the number in the entire month of July and over 15 times more than in June.

Some 7,832 new cases were reported in Israel on Tuesday, with 5.6% of people screened being positive. Both figures marked a decrease compared to the previous day, when the country registered 8,734 cases and a 6.2% positivity rate – both the highest rates since February.

In the briefing, Bennett warned that all the numbers are expected to further increase.

In the meantime, the country continues the race to vaccinate individuals over the age of 50 with a third dose.

“No one who is in critical condition has been vaccinated three times,” Zarka said.

So far, more than 1.1 million Israelis have received the booster. The committee advising the Health Ministry on the issue is set to meet on Thursday to discuss whether to further lower the age of those eligible for a third shot to individuals as young as 40, a week after the ministry decided to open the jab to all those age 50 and up.

In the briefing, Bennett urged all Israelis who have not been inoculated to do so and said that he would “run” to get the jab, if it was available to him.

Vaccinating the approximately one million eligible people who have not been inoculated yet is considered by authorities to be the number-one priority to avoid tighter restrictions.

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash signed a directive to carry out vaccinations in schools during school hours, overruling Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has been strongly opposed to the idea.

The coronavirus cabinet is set to convene on Sunday to talk about the outline for the education system.

“The time until the eve of Rosh Hashanah is the critical time, or, God forbid, the virus will defeat us and we will get to a lockdown like the first and second ones, where we do not go farther than 100 meters from our houses,” Zarka said.

The current restrictions are not sufficient to contain the outbreak, he said.

“As the corona commissioner, I would like to limit gatherings to 50 inside and 100 outside,” he remarked.

During a closed briefing later in the day, Zarka shared a chart that demonstrated that the number of daily cases in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector has been progressively rising over the past week and now accounts for around 10% of daily cases.

“The infection rate in the ultra-Orthodox society is higher than in the Arab and general society,” Zarka said. “The data tell the story.”

The secular community makes up 83% of new cases and the Arab community 6%.

The reproduction rate or “R” in the haredi sector has hit 1.6, compared to 1.29 in the other sectors at the time of the report.

Zarka said that the increase is likely due to schools opening on the first of the Hebrew month of Elul, nearly one month before schools in the rest of the country.

The ministry launched serological testing among haredi students under the age of 12 last week. So far, around 16% of the community’s youth have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, meaning they had the virus and did not know.

When students are found positive for antibodies, they receive a Green Pass and are exempt from isolation, even if one of their classmates has the virus.

But he cautioned that the goal should not be infection.

“Childhood infection is not child’s play,” Zarka warned. “There are side effects. We see long COVID even in children who have had mild disease.”

Zarka said that he is working closely with Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and other areas with large haredi populations to open vaccination complexes, including for the third shot.

Bnei Brak announced the launch of an emergency vaccination and testing operation on Wednesday after the city, which had long maintained a “green” status and had no patients, surpassed the 1,000-patient threshold.

“We are not waiting,” said Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein. “There is a real risk to Torah life before the High Holy Days, and especially to maintain the health of our loved ones. I call on the residents of Bnei Brak to go out and get vaccinated.”

The city is converting a community recreation center into a vaccination complex, the city said in an announcement. From 6 p.m. to midnight each night until next Thursday, members of all the health funds will be able to come out, get vaccinated and receive a free bowl of cholent.

Zarka said that health officials are working with the haredi leadership to finalize an outline for the education system – including the yeshivas – which should be complete within days. Moreover, a final plan is being arranged for the Western Wall and synagogues, which tend to have larger-than-usual crowds over the High Holy Days.

“I really want the ultra-Orthodox public to be able to celebrate the High Holidays,” Zarka said. “But if you look at the morbidity data, and when I compare July versus August and September, I worry that I see high morbidity and mortality. My job is to save lives.”

Finally, he said that an outline for travel to Uman over the High Holy Days has already been agreed upon, and only vaccinated Israelis will be allowed to fly to the popular High Holy Days location.

“We are awaiting approval from the Ukrainians,” he said.

But he also instructed that any haredim who do travel to Uman should return and enter isolation because going to synagogue with the virus on Yom Kippur “could lead to mass infection.”

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