If the Israeli public does not listen to the guidelines issued by the authorities to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus, a nationwide lockdown will be enforced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday night in an interview on Channel 12.
As of Wednesday, 433 people were diagnosed with the virus, six of whom are in critical conditions, marking an increase of about 100 new cases in 24 hours. The number of people infected is expected to surpass 500 over the weekend.
Speaking to Channel 12, Netanyahu addressed ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab-Israelis and urged them to follow the Health Ministry’s instructions and avoid gathering in large groups.
He said that Israel’s situation is better than that of most countries. “We need to make sure that it continues this way,” he stated.
“If necessary, the order for a lockdown will be ready tomorrow,” Netanyahu stated, adding that a full lockdown would have very concerning consequences for the economy. “So far we have done all the things that have led the State of Israel to be among the three or four countries in the best situation in the world – but that is not summer vacation. We have anticipated the rest of the world in closing borders, widespread home isolation, limiting malfunctions, and using digital tools that have now been activated.”
An optimistic outlook on Israel’s situation was expressed earlier in the day also by American-British-Israeli Nobel Prize laureate Michael Levitt, who predicted that no more than 10 people, and likely even far fewer, will die in Israel as a result of the disease.
Speaking to KAN Reshet Bet, Levitt, who lives part-time in Tel Aviv, said that on a global scale, the number of cases in Israel is very small.
“There is a lot of unjustified panic in Israel. I don't believe the numbers here; everything is politics, not math," he said.
Stressing that it is almost impossible to make comparisons between countries regarding the number of infected, because each government is taking a different approach on how it records cases, he highlighted that the best way to evaluate the figures is through the number of deaths reported. So far, Israel has not registered any deaths due to COVID-19.
However, Levitt has also not been dismissive of the precautions being put in place.
“You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face-to-face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt told Calcalist earlier this week. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep an infection in check. So, under these circumstances... the rate will keep going down.”
On Tuesday, Israeli authorities announced a new set of restrictive measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak, prohibiting visiting parks, beaches, pools, libraries and museums as well as all in-person social interactions. Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov told Israelis to stay at home unless absolutely necessary.
Netanyahu also promised a dramatic increase in the number of people tested for the virus, stating that he expects between 3,000 and 5,000 tests to be taken per day. He added that hospitals are upgrading to be able to handle more sick patients.
Speaking to Channel 12 a day later, the prime minister clarified that he believes that Israel will be able to perform 3,000 a day by Sunday, and 5,000 by the following Sunday.
According to the Health Ministry, over 2,200 tests were performed on Tuesday, more than double the amount of the previous days, highlighting a significant rise in the number of tests executed.
“Leaders around the world laud my decisions,” Netanyahu told Channel 12. He also thanked his “friends around the world” for a shipment of medical checks that is going to arrive in Israel on Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that a total lockdown in Israel is inevitable, given the situation, and that he has instructed the police and other security forces to prepare for the decision in a phone call with the heads of internal security bodies throughout the country.
Such a lockdown would mean that only critical workers may leave their homes while the rest of the citizens may leave the house only to equip themselves or to receive medical treatment.
In the meantime, the Population and Immigration Authority announced that, effective immediately, entry into Israel by travelers who are neither citizens nor residents of the state will not be permitted, even if they have proven the ability to stay in quarantine.
Some 20 Nefesh B'Nefesh olim, new immigrants, were on a flight from New York to Israel when the government made its announcement. With the new regulations, they would not be allowed to land in the country.
“We got permission in writing” from the government, and the olim will land and make aliyah at 1:10 p.m. Thursday,” a spokeswoman for the organization told The Jerusalem Post. “It has been so stressful.”
She added that NBN is expecting some 40 more olim to Israel over the course of the next two weeks.
Earlier in the day, Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman wrote Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein a letter, informing him that he does not intend to come to the Knesset anytime soon, because he is afraid of contracting the coronavirus.
Litzman, 71, wrote in the letter that it is dangerous for the elderly to leave home, due to their weaker immune systems. He said his doctors told him the Knesset would be an especially bad place to visit, because MKs have come in contact with people who have the virus.
Four MKs are in quarantine after meeting with Merhavim Regional Council head Shai Hajaj, who was infected by the coronavirus: Arye Deri (Shas), Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), Ram Ben Barak (Blue and White) and Alon Shuster (Blue and White).
Hanegbi, Ben Barak and Shuster all tested negative for the coronavirus after they came in contact with a different person who had the virus.
The Knesset is considering requiring all MKs to be tested after offering them voluntary tests when they arrived for the Knesset’s swearing-in on Monday. Edelstein released a list of regulations on Wednesday night, including that no more than 10 people will be allowed in a room at any given time.
The outbreak has been hitting the country’s medical sector hard, with over 20 professionals reported sick and over 2,700 in isolation, including hundreds of doctors and nurses.
Among others, a nurse who works in Ichilov Hospital’s emergency room at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center was diagnosed with coronavirus, and half of the staff of the emergency room was ordered to enter isolation, according to Channel 13. Also, the Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem revealed that a nurse working in its emergency room tested positive to the virus.
Moreover, three workers of the Health Ministry, including deputy head of public health Dr. Udi Kleiner, have entered isolation after they attended a hearing with someone who was later found to be infected. The ministry highlighted that its counselor, attorney Uri Schwrtz, was not present at the hearings and can therefore continue working as usual.
The ministry had previously announced that a judge in the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court was diagnosed with the virus, making it the first case of a judge infected in Israel. Over 30 judges and several workers who had contacts with him have entered isolation.
The Health Ministry stated that of those infected as of Wednesday, 2% are ages 0-9, 7% ages 10-19, 16% ages 20-29, 22% ages 30-39, 16% ages 40-49, 11% ages 50-59, 12% ages 60-69, 11% ages over 70, and for 3% of the cases the information is unknown.
As of Wednesday, over 200,000 coronavirus cases and 8,500 deaths were reported in 164 countries in the world.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.