Israel's Coronavirus cabinet weighs full lockdown from mid-August

Decision to allow foreign students in the country sparks criticism

People wearing face masks walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, August 2, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People wearing face masks walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, August 2, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
A full lockdown could be imposed as early as mid-August in order to stop the spread of coronavirus infection, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday, adding that he hopes it will not be necessary.
“One option, and we will try to avoid it, is a general lockdown for the whole country,” Netanyahu said at the start of the coronavirus cabinet meeting. “We must reduce infection – we just must.”
The suggestion came after a discussion that was supposed to center on lifting restrictions.
Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the new coronavirus commissioner, had informed the public he was going to present ideas to the coronavirus cabinet on Monday that would ease economic challenges and potentially even lift closures on stores and malls over the weekend. However, the cabinet meeting ended quicker than expected due to clashes among Gamzu, Netanyahu and other ministers, who felt it was premature to reduce restrictions.
Other ideas that were discussed at the meeting included municipal or other targeted closures in areas of high infection, continuing with weekend closures or possibly rolling out nighttime lockdowns.
Because no decisions were reached, the cabinet is set to reconvene on Wednesday. Gamzu was tasked to present a detailed plan that could be voted on at that meeting.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had earlier said as far as he was concerned, “There is no such thing as a half closure, just as there is no such thing as being half pregnant.”
“If you decide on a lockdown, then it should be a full one,” he said. “As long as this is not the case, there is no point in partial closures.”
“The morbidity rate in Israel is among the highest in the world,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting. “This is the bad news. The good news is that for the past two weeks, the rate seems to have been plateauing.”
“The number of serious patients is increasing slowly in a way that at the moment is not posing a challenge to the system,” he said. “However, the death toll is rising. Last week, it stood at 68, and it could rise to large numbers.”
Ten patients died from COVID-19 between Sunday evening and Monday evening, bringing the victims of the pandemic in Israel to 546, a the Health Ministry reported.
Moreover, 1,090 new cases were registered between Sunday at midnight and Monday evening. At last count, there were 331 patients in serious condition, including 99 on ventilators. Since the beginning of the crisis, 74,102 Israelis have contracted COVID-19, while the current number of active cases was 26,005.
On Saturday and Sunday, fewer than 800 new patients had been detected.
For the first time since the start of the “second wave,” the infection rate has fallen below threshold 1, meaning each contagious person is infecting less than one other person, Gamzu said.
Only 7,800 tests were conducted on Sunday, 10,000 on Sunday, and 13,700 on Monday between midnight and 8 p.m., compared with more than 20,000 in the previous days. Beforehand, up to 30,000 tests were carried out daily.
The number of tests performed daily has decreased both because of fewer requests and because of minor changes to the eligibility criteria, the Health Ministry reported.
The Defense Ministry announced it was working to expand COVID-19 testing capabilities with a tender for the establishment of two additional labs that would be able to process tens of thousands of samples per day.
At the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu remarked upon the necessity to lower the number of new patients and to break the infection chain, while taking into consideration that the opening of the school year on September 1 risks a rise in the morbidity rate.
Also at the cabinet meeting, Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said the IDF is working to set up a headquarters to manage the crisis and especially to work toward slowing the morbidity rate. The IDF is assisting citizens and institutions in “orange areas” to prevent them from becoming red, he said.
The goal remains to avoid a general lockdown, Netanyahu said at the Likud faction meeting, adding that local lockdowns or specific restrictions represent tools that can be employed for this purpose. More funds need to be transferred to citizens to support the economy, he said.
The Knesset coronavirus committee deliberated the issue of cultural institutions, which were completely shutdown at the beginning of last month shortly after they had been authorized to open again.
“We want to convey a message to the cabinet: The fact that the only thing we cannot find a solution for is the culture sector does not look good,” committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud) said, adding that the institutions have proven to be able to organize themselves effectively to abide by the regulations.
“According to the morbidity rate, we should have opened them yesterday, not tomorrow,” she said.
“We want to open cultural events as soon as the morbidity rate will allow it,” Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto said. “The rate is still high, and the number of serious patients is still rising. Tomorrow there will be a roundtable discussion on culture that will be presented by the Culture and Sport Ministry.”
Several opposition MKs harshly criticized the government for allowing foreign students, especially yeshiva students, to come to Israel next year, while no decision was being made for Israeli cultural institutions.
The plan and conditions to allow foreign students in the country was approved by Gamzu earlier on Monday morning. He held discussions on Sunday with Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Isaac Herzog, Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef from the Population and Immigration Authority and Dr. Asher Salmon from the Health Ministry, along with representatives from the Council for Higher Education.
About 21,000 students are expected to enter the country throughout the year, including some 2,000 university students, 12,000 yeshiva students, 5,000 Masa participants, 500 Naale students and 1,500 students in private institutions
The students will only be allowed into the country if the institutions they are learning at are approved by the Health Ministry and commit to upholding quarantine regulations for two weeks in capsules of up to six students. Some 31 institutions had been approved as of Monday out of the 183 that filed requests for approval.
Any students who break quarantine regulations will face consequences, and the institutions they learn at will face consequences as well, the Health Ministry said.
The Health Ministry will be in charge of enforcing and monitoring the institutions. A weekly report will be issued concerning how many students receive permits to enter the country.
Also on Monday, a report by the Knesset Research Center found that between January and July 2020, the number of beds in Israeli hospitals only increased by 20, from 16,301 to 16,321.
The general occupancy rate of the hospitals in Israel is similar if not slightly inferior to last year, the report said. Beds in special coronavirus wards are added or removed according to need, it said. While medical centers provide accurate numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients at any given time, they cannot provide occupancy rates, it added.
Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman contributed to this report.