Can police help win Israel’s COVID-19 battle?

Tomer Lotan, director-general of the Public Security Ministry, spoke with the Post about one of the critical elements of Israel’s battle against COVID-19: enforcement

 POLICE OFFICERS embark on a task to enforce the Covid-19 emergency regulations in Jerusalem, last month (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
POLICE OFFICERS embark on a task to enforce the Covid-19 emergency regulations in Jerusalem, last month
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The recent Funjoya in Eilat sparked attacks against the Israel Police, with the public and the media asking why officers did not halt such a potential super-spreading event.

The Funjoya is the largest student festival in Israel, held twice a year. It includes three days of pool parties at several hotels simultaneously, and in the evening, there are huge events on the Funjoya beach, including fireworks and music.

“If you look at what was happening there, the parties were Green Pass, so they were allowed,” Tomer Lotan, director-general of the Public Security Ministry, told The Jerusalem Post.

He headed the “Magen Israel” National Coronavirus Task Force in the previous waves.

Partygoers “do not have to wear masks in the pool. They do not have to wear masks when they are drinking a beer or when they are eating.

“So even if 500 police officers were there, what can we do?” he asked, “stand by the pool and catch them for not wearing a mask between the time they go out of the water and to the bar to grab a beer?”

He said, “It sounds crazy, but this is the reality today.”

Lotan spoke with the Post about one of the critical elements of Israel’s battle against COVID-19: enforcement.

It’s part of the Bennett administration’s three-pronged strategy against COVID-19, which also includes vaccines and testing.

In a country where the public tends to be noncompliant and complacent, ensuring the rules are followed is a daunting task, according to Lotan.

The ministry took over enforcement on July 21 – the first ministry to be given the task since the start of the pandemic more than 18 months ago.

“Enforcement has become a much greater and fundamental element of fighting the disease than before,” Lotan said. “I find myself at the ministry much more involved and much more accountable to the [coronavirus] cabinet.”

But at the same time, the environment is not ripe for enforcement, he explained.

Israel Police officers enforce lockdown restrictions, January 8, 2020. (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)Israel Police officers enforce lockdown restrictions, January 8, 2020. (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

“The public behavior is actually drawn from what is the basic atmosphere regarding the coronavirus, so if we have a situation where the population feels danger and feels like the coronavirus is here and the wave is big, there is more self-enforcement,” he said. “When people feel safe and protected and don’t feel that there is an urgency around the coronavirus, then enforcement becomes much more difficult.”

From his perspective, the public does not understand the gravity of the situation in Israel, which is in the midst of one of the most powerful and dangerous waves of the virus. With hospitals already filled with sick patients who did not receive early or proper treatment during the previous three waves for non-COVID-related diseases, the around 700 serious COVID-19 cases are straining the system.

There is a concurrent challenge in that the current administration is set on keeping the economy fully open, including allowing mass gatherings and maintaining open schools, a challenge that has grown as the number of people in isolation has skyrocketed.

In mid-July there were around 15,000 to 17,000 in quarantine. Today, there are almost 200,000. In addition, there is the need for enforcement of the Green Pass, the Happy Pass and the Purple Ribbon outline.

With such high numbers, the idea of electronic bracelets or any other “physically attached” solution is not on the table anymore. Instead, the ministry is turning to other means, which Lotan said he hopes will create an “environment of enforcement” and turn a situation that for months has been ineffective into a protocol that will keep the country safer.

BECAUSE DURING the three previous lockdowns there was never an official who was put in charge of overseeing enforcement, the ministry has largely had to start from scratch – even in terms of putting the basic infrastructure in place.

Lotan said its first steps over the summer were to roll out a better data collection and management system, followed by new technologies that could support the physical fieldwork of the police.

One of the core roles of the ministry is to ensure that Israelis adhere to the rules of quarantine. Until now, the only method for catching people who leave isolation has been a police patrol – officers knocking on people’s doors to make sure they are home.

“This is a very old-school kind of technique,” Lotan said. And it was also very limiting. The police can knock on a maximum of 8,000 doors a day, which is not very many if around 200,000 people are in isolation. Moreover, it is easy to fool the police and relatively awkward.

He said he accompanied the police on some of these missions and described situations where moms, with babies in their hands, came to the doorstep.

“Where’s the boy?” the police asked one mother, wondering about the whereabouts of the woman’s son. “He’s in his room,” she said.

“It is not a very sophisticated way of ensuring quarantine,” Lotan said with a sigh.

The police receive updated lists of people in quarantine every few hours through the Health Ministry. Today, they aim to prioritize physical checks around sick people, including those who returned from abroad or who tested positive with an antigen test but have not gone for a PCR test.

People who test positive on a rapid corona test are supposed to retest with a higher-grade PCR test and isolate themselves unless a negative result returns.

When thousands of Israelis returned from Uman after Rosh Hashanah, enforcing their lockdown was a first priority, Lotan said. There are also efforts to target people who returned from abroad in general. But the system of knocking on doors fails a lot of the time, he admitted, because there are just not enough knocks for the number of people who need to be staying at home.

As such, the ministry this week rolled out a GPS tracking system, which Lotan believes will do a better job of monitoring quarantined Israelis.

With the new system, tens of thousands of isolated Israelis will receive text messages from the police asking them to click on a link and provide their location. The tracking system was developed by the police and the ministry and piloted in the first few weeks of September.

Lotan said that on the first day, some 60,000 Israelis received and interacted with the text messages.

People can refuse the tracking. None of the information provided to the system is stored.

Of course, people can fool the system, the director-general admitted.

“You can leave your phone at home with your husband or children, and they will click the link. But our basic understanding is that having this message, having something that you get from the state or from the police that tells you ‘we are here to check on you’ will already increase compliance,” Lotan explained. “Most people are normative people who want to do the right thing, but sometimes they just need to have the feeling that there is someone who is checking on them – even if it is just an SMS text message.”

A third layer of enforcement is expected to be ready in November: a new, more sophisticated technology that enables the police to have video chats with the isolated person.

“We’ll call you, ask you to open your camera and have a video chat with the isolated person to make sure he or she is really at home,” Lotan explained. “This could include elements such as asking you to show your ID card or having a short conversation with you to make sure your quarantine really is quarantine.”

IN THE last couple of months, the ministry has also focused forces on ensuring people are wearing masks when they should be.

“On this, we have already made great progress,” Lotan said, showing the Post a graph, in which masking fines increased 20% from July to August, and nearly 44,000 fines were administered.

The only month that had a similar number of fines was June 2020, just after the second lockdown.

Several studies show that masks help slow the spread of coronavirus. Masking is required everywhere except outdoors or one’s permanent place of residence. The Health Ministry also recommends wearing masks in large outdoor gatherings.

On the one hand, the public isn’t adhering to the rules and therefore people should be fined. On the other hand, videos have circulated of people being harassed by police in some instances.

One video circulated earlier this month of two young mothers being dragged out of a store in Beit Shemesh for not wearing their masks. Complaints have also been lodged by people that police are patrolling in plainclothes and going into stores and ticketing people.

One woman, T. from a haredi city outside Jerusalem, told the Post that she has a mask exemption but has still been harassed in some cases, including being blocked from entering a government office, despite the fact that the rules of masking explicitly state that anyone who has an emotional, psychological or physical disability can receive an exemption.

ISRAEL’S USE of the police in its enforcement of quarantine is unusual among Western countries, where isolation enforcement is generally carried out by the health services or epidemiological trackers.

In the United Kingdom, for example, a National Health Services website explains that if you are meant to quarantine, “NHS Test and Trace... will contact you daily, using text messages, email or phone calls.”

In addition, isolated people might be visited by someone carrying out a quarantine check on behalf of the organization. Breaking quarantine is subject to a fine of up to £10,000.

But the NHS staff does not actually have the ability to enforce isolation.

“If the staff carrying out the checks have reason to believe you may be breaching quarantine rules, they may refer your case to the police,” the site explains. “If the police have reasonable grounds to believe that you have committed a criminal offense in breach of your duty to quarantine, they may issue you with a fine.

“Staff working on behalf of NHS Test and Trace staff do not have enforcement powers, including the power to issue fixed penalty notices or fines. This means they will never ask you for money,” the site says.

In most US states, the only enforcement is coming through the epidemiological trackers. People who receive a call to investigate the chain of infection are informed of the regulations and told to keep them by a representative, but there is no inspection.

“Israel is doing much more,” Lotan said.