Nation locks down as PM threatens more restrictions
18 September 2020 - The jerusalem post
Closure begins at 2 p.m., to last for at least two weeks • Gamzu: ‘The public is not with us’
The citizens of Israel will enter the New Year in lockdown, after the government and parliament approved on Thursday a closure that will last at least two weeks. The nationwide lockdown begins at 2 p.m. on Friday.
The Knesset approved an initial lockdown for two weeks, which is likely to be extended to three and possibly more.
"We find ourselves before the second closure since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday during a televised address. "We have determined that one of the criteria for new restrictions would be a red flag from the health system – and it was waved last week," Netanyahu said.
"So, we are imposing the closure that will begin tomorrow. We are making every effort to balance health and economic needs."
The prime minister added that in the last two days the country has seen a further increase in morbidity, as well as a rise in the number of seriously ill patients.
On Thursday morning, the Health Ministry reported 4,560 new cases of the virus in the past day, and another 3,843 between midnight and press time. Some 573 people were in serious condition, including 149 who were intubated. The death toll spiked to 1,169.
"I had a conversation with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu and the other experts and asked them one question: Does this condition require us to further tighten restrictions?"
He said "there will be no choice but to tighten the restrictions," but that before making any changes to the current outline, he will discuss them with his fellow ministers. "I will not just impose a closure on the State of Israel [but] I will not hesitate to impose restrictions if necessary."
Soon before the final vote by the Knesset and the briefing, Netanyahu held an urgent meeting with Edelstein, Gamzu and a limited number of ministers and experts to discuss whether to tighten the restrictions. The meeting came after a lively debate in the Knesset that questioned the effectiveness of the upcoming lockdown if people have so much flexibility of movement.
During the meeting, it was revealed, Gamzu explained that, "I do not think a long-term closure is the answer to managing coronavirus. If we were at 2,000 cases per day and we were not in the period of the High Holy Days, I would not take any step like this, but would just use the traffic-light program.
"The public is not with us," he lamented. "We have to take into account the economy. Even if I go and tell the public that there will be 1,000 dead from coronavirus a week, it will not convince them. The public is just not there."
He said he estimates that the lockdown in its current format will likely only reduce the daily number of newly infected patients to between about 3,000 to 4,000.
Edelstein responded that "there will be no escape from serious restrictions." He said that the public is asking what happens after the lockdown and "we tell them we will be able to cut the chains of infection. But we are not there. We cannot perform contact tracing on 2,000 or 3,000 people per day."
The previous day, Edelstein said in a closed-door meeting: "I consulted with all the senior officials, most of them with advanced degrees and experts in the field, and asked them whether there is a chance that the infection rate will go down under these conditions. To my great disappointment, I did not find anyone who was optimistic."
This quote was released by Channel 12.
The ministers considered changing the restrictions even before Rosh Hashanah, but decided that it should wait until after the holiday. It is still unclear if they will try to tighten the directives before or after Yom Kippur. The new regulations could mean closing down synagogues and marketplaces.
During Thursday's meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto tried to defend the plans. He said that he has "never seen anything" like the coronavirus and that it is a "virus that is deceiving us – and we must change our traditional means of treatment."
He said that the closure that is meant to be implemented Friday at 2 p.m. is different than the previous one because "we've learned since then that we can reach an open, more dynamic lockdown, similar to the model that proved itself in other countries."
As for providing the public with directives, Grotto said that "the very basic message is to stay at home. If you don't need to leave for anything essential, stay at home. That's the only way of ensuring the public's safety."
Earlier in the day, Edelstein addressed the public from the Shield of Israel headquarters in Airport City in an attempt to explain the decisions that led to the expected lockdown. He said that it is easy to point fingers at different sectors or the government, but in the end, "without the public, we cannot succeed" in the fight against coronavirus.
Already then, he said that the restrictions could be shortened or extended depending on the infection rate.
"We are currently in a war for civil peace," Edelstein said. "I am inundated with questions as to why we allowed the outline of prayers. The answer is that the restrictions apply during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Given this fact, we have proudly approved minyanim [prayer quorums] with all the requirements of the Purple Ribbon so that everyone who wants to pray can – they can hear the shofar or Kol Nidre, each according to their custom."
He said that the public should stop asking why prayer and protests are allowed, and instead ask themselves, "What can I do so these restrictions will work, and we will see a different infection rate?"
He said the infection rate is up because schools opened on September 1, claiming that he has the data to show that there are thousands of sick students and teachers throughout the country. Edelstein stressed that the medical system is overburdened and overcapacity. Some 3,519 medical personnel are in isolation and 1,284 are sick with coronavirus.
"Think how these numbers contribute to the burden on the healthcare system," he said.
Meanwhile, a team of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who monitor Israel's coronavirus infection rates daily, published a report on Thursday that predicts a significant increase in the number of coronavirus patients and the number of patients in serious and critical condition. The report also predicts a significant increase in coronavirus deaths in the coming days. They said they expected an additional 1,000 to 2,500 deaths during the course of the closure alone.
"Until now, the numbers have been following optimistic models of infection as expected – and due to infections occurring primarily in the young population," the report said. "But in recent days, there has been an increase in the number of critical patients."
During his press conference, Edelstein addressed the pushback against the 500 meters restriction, which medical experts have said has no epidemiological value. He said he agrees – but "there is a very clear socio-managerial logic in this guideline and I call on everyone to keep it. Because without it, we will all visit our families, go to the beach and parks, and the restrictions will continue."
Later, the Knesset committee voted to change the limit from 500 meters to one kilometer, which is what passed in the final vote. Eight ministers voted in favor of the lockdown and five voted against.
"The extension to 1,000-meters is a right and important thing," said MK Yaakov Asher, who chairs the Knesset committee. "There is criticism from the whole public and closure is not easy for anyone. Everyone's lives are going to go wrong. We must take responsibility for ourselves and I call on all citizens to try to get through this together... I hope that there will be self-discipline and we will not need further restrictions."
During the meeting, several Knesset members clashed with each other and with Grotto.
"Have you lost your mind? This looks nothing like a lockdown," said MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid) during the meeting. "It's the devastation of our economy. It shouldn't have been presented 30 hours before implementing it and entering lockdown. I've gone over the regulations. The most significant things closed are businesses, without having discussed any form of appropriate compensation."
The government only passed and presented the outline for the closure to the Knesset on Thursday morning.
She added that the lockdown won't decrease morbidity rates and that the police will not be able to enforce the restrictions.
"The restrictions have no logic to them," she concluded.
Regarding enforcement, the Israel Police echoed Edelstein's comments about the importance of the public showing responsibility, but said it will enforce the lockdown to the best of its ability.
"We're facing a national mission. It's important that the public understands that while the responsibility falls on the police regarding enforcement – it falls on the public as well," police officials told The Jerusalem Post's sister paper Maariv.
"Only by joining forces and being responsible will we be able to complete the mission and eradicate the virus," they said.
"We're not against the citizens," the officials added. "If someone is looking to violate the restrictions, they can definitely find ways to do so.
But they won't be able to trick the virus or the public... This is a sensitive operation, and we're aware of that."
The Police said it has been working on special training programs over the last few days to better handle the challenge.
There will be 7,000 officers deployed throughout the country to help enforce the lockdown, and 1,000 soldiers. Nearly 40 intercity roadblocks will be set up at entrances to cities, as well as dozens if not hundreds of other places across the country.
Police said the focus of their work will be to stop large gatherings rather than individual perpetrators.
Fines range from NIS 500 for traveling more than a kilometer for a non-approved reason to NIS 5,000 for breaking isolation.