Corona cabinet meeting postponed as debate over school outline continues

Closures lifted on most red cities in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Israel's coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu (photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Israel's coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Lockdowns on all Israeli cities were removed Tuesday as the infection rate dropped and the government prepared to discuss the next stage of Israel’s exit strategy.
The ministerial committee responsible for declaring red zones approved lifting the closures on nearly all red cities and neighborhoods on Tuesday afternoon. A joint message by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry said that the lockdowns were lifted from the cities of Bnei Brak, Elad, Beitar Illit and Modi’in Illit, along with several neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
The night before, the government agreed to lift the closure on the community of Rehasim.
The only area that remains a red zone is the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said that the decision was based on data and that the country has been witnessing a sharp decline in morbidity across all sectors in recent days.
On Tuesday evening, the Health Ministry reported 1,486 new cases from the day before, with about 3.5% of those screened testing positive. There were 616 people in serious condition, including 234 who were intubated; the death toll stood at 2,278.
“All sectors are declining in the number of verified patients and the rate of people testing positive,” Gamzu said during a Tuesday afternoon briefing. “We continue to examine the data on a daily basis. The situation is still looking good.”
But he cautioned that it could turn at any moment. As such, he encouraged people to get tested.
He announced that the health funds would start screening people for coronavirus without a doctor’s referral in all cities across the country in the coming days – although reports later in the day cautioned that the funds might not be equipped to handle such a program.
“In specific cities, also in the Arab sector and in other municipalities, I am seeing a return to gathering, a return to weddings, a return to parties – we are against this,” he said.
Several senior health officials have similarly warned that people are breaking regulations – and therefore, within the next week or 10 days, Israel will see a significant increase in infection. Then, they said, there won’t be any additional relief.
A source in the cabinet told The Jerusalem Post’s sister paper, Maariv, that “the second stage is not close – we are not there yet.”
But the data might not be the root of Israel’s failure to move to the next stage of its exit strategy.
Stage two, which is supposed to start when Israel has around 1,000 new cases per day, is expected to include the following reliefs: school grades one through four to open in capsules; hairdressers, salons and beauty parlors to resume activity; and alternative medicine and related services to operate.
THE CORONAVIRUS cabinet was meant to convene on Tuesday to get discussions rolling, but the meeting was pushed off until Wednesday because of a disagreement between the Health, Education and Finance ministries.
Sources in the Health Ministry accused the Education Ministry of not cooperating. A senior official in the Educational Ministry said that the Health Ministry has zigzagged on its policies and is afraid to make decisions.
According to the Education Ministry, on October 14, the Health Ministry approved opening first and second grades without capsules and without requiring children to wear masks; after-school programs were to be allowed to operate like they were in the preschools, with up to three groups of students coming together.
Then, on October 19, the Health Ministry did an about-face and delivered an alternative program: capsules of up to 18 students, masks required and after-school programs could not be mixed.
A senior official in the Education Ministry said that his ministry is not prepared to return children in grades one and two to school because of “indecision in the Health Ministry” and that “everyone there changes their minds.”
He explained during a briefing Tuesday that if the Health Ministry insists on dividing first and second grade classes into capsules, it would take a minimum of five weeks to implement the directive.
“We estimate it will take no less than five weeks from receiving the money” to hire teachers and implement such a strategy,” he said. “You cannot recruit before receiving funds.”
He said that more than 10,000 new teachers would have to be hired countrywide.
“In such a situation, in order to maintain health, one thing that can be done is that first and second graders will learn only half a week. We are preparing for all situations,” he said.
The official walked the press through the decision-making history, reminding them that the Education Ministry originally presented a NIS 10 billion plan in July that would have taken two months to implement – the bulk of the challenge being recruiting teachers.
The plan was presented to the prime minister and members of the coronavirus cabinet at the time, as well as senior officials in the Health Ministry. Then, a team was convened of the three ministry directors-general – Health, Finance and Education. Ultimately, they decided there was not a need for first and second grade classes to be divided and hence the Education Ministry set out to get a NIS 4 billion plan approved – and it was ratified by the government and the Knesset.
Schools opened according to that plan on September first. Now, the Health Ministry has changed its outline.
“We accept the new Health Ministry outline, but it has pointed implications,” he stressed.
ASIDE FROM the money, there is also an issue of space.
If all classes are divided, then grades five and six will need to learn somewhere else – likely in middle-school classrooms. Eventually, those students will return, and again they will need a place to study. If middle and/or high school students are asked to learn in the afternoon, there will be a violation of the wage agreements with the teachers, and this would have to be negotiated.
The Finance Ministry has also said it is unwilling to spend the money required to open first and second grades in capsules.
In response to hearing about the proposed plan of dividing classes, local authorities head Haim Bibas said that the proposal is “ridiculous.”
“It will harm their learning, their routine and their social life, and is simply inapplicable,” Bibas said. “I call on the Education and Health ministries to reach a logical solution.”
Also on Tuesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that he hoped to discuss increased enforcement at the meeting this week.
“There is a gap between the careful decisions of the coronavirus cabinet and what happens in reality, of violation of guidelines by educational institutions and businesses,” Edelstein said “Therefore, we will bring to the coronavirus cabinet a proposal to severely increase fines. It is impossible that someone who is doing good will have it bad and the rest will have it good.”
What level of fines is the country potentially facing?
Fines as much as NIS 10,000 for holding large events like weddings or for opening schools are being considered, with second-time offenders possibly being fined as much as NIS 50,000.
“Enforcement must create deterrence,” Gamzu said.