Coronavirus: Government agrees to extend lockdown until Friday morning

The cabinet also voted to continue with its ban on international flights until Sunday

Israelis are seen walking along the Jaffa Street light rail tracks in Jerusalem amid the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, on January 14, 2021.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen walking along the Jaffa Street light rail tracks in Jerusalem amid the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, on January 14, 2021..
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed to extend the lockdown by another five days shortly before midnight on Sunday night, 
The cabinet also voted to continue with its ban on international flights until Sunday, his office said in a statement. Until then, there will be no entry or exit from Israel with the exception of special cases. 
Both sets of measures were set to expire on Sunday at midnight. The lockdown is now set to end on Friday at 7 a.m. and the flight ban on Sunday, February 7 at midnight.
To help halt what has become an increasingly acute humanitarian crisis, with Israelis stranded abroad, the cabinet also voted to establish a committee to approve applications for arrival into Israel, which will be headed by Minister Yuval Steinitz. The committee will also be comprised of representatives from other ministries, such as the Interior, Foreign, Health, Transportation and Diaspora and Aliyah ministries.
Finally, beginning Monday, all returnees who do enter the country will be required to isolate in state-run coronavirus hotels with few exceptions. That regulation will be in place through the expected opening of the airport on February 7.
The government agreed to reconvene on Wednesday to discuss whether to further extend the lockdown.
Meanwhile, Minister Aryeh Deri announced Sunday night that the land borders of Israel will stay closed until Tuesday.
The cabinet meeting that began Wednesday afternoon and lasted until late witnessed harsh infighting between the different parties sitting in the coalition. While the prime minister supported a request by the Health Ministry to extend the lockdown another week, Gantz said before the meeting that he was only willing to push it another three days. 
“We need to reduce the morbidity rate; we are already seeing that the lockdown is working. Another week and we can start opening,” Netanyahu said at the opening of the meeting.
“The lockdown has a price. It is an economic price, a social price but also a price in terms of health,” Gantz replied. “We cannot maintain these restrictions for a long time. The effect of the vaccines is already evident; we must assign more staff to the campaign and to consider its effect within the traffic light program.”
Earlier in the day, the Blue and White leader told party members that he visited Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ramat Gan.
“I saw that everything was open," he said. 
Gantz has said since last week that if the lockdown would be extended, he expected it to apply to all sectors of society. In the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, several members have defiantly opened schools and held large events, spreading the disease. 
Health authorities had hoped to see a significant reduction in new coronavirus cases and serious patients by this week, given that more than three million Israelis have already received at least one shot of the coronavirus vaccine, including a large majority of the elderly and at-risk population that has received two jabs.
However, the experts said they hope to see a lowering of infection in the coming days.
In the meantime, the lockdown is needed, they said in light of the fact that patients in serious condition have consistently numbered more than 1,100 which has strained the hospital system.
The severity of the situation is likely caused by the new highly infectious coronavirus variants, according to experts, who say that they appear to have dramatically increased the ability of the virus to spread. At the beginning of the cabinet meeting, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told the ministers that about 70% of people currently testing positive in Israel are infected with the British variant.
Some 2,596 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Israel on Saturday, according to a Sunday morning update by the Health Ministry. While the figure is significantly lower than previous days, the data are influenced by the effect of the weekend, with only 26,817 tests performed – some 9.7% having positive results – compared to some 70,000 on weekdays.
Of those infected, a total of 1,165 were in serious condition and 323 were on ventilators as of Thursday night. The death toll stood at 4,786.
If a lockdown had not been imposed, Israel would have registered some 20,000 new daily cases and 2,000 serious patients, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Radio FM 103, part of The Jerusalem Post group.
THE GOVERNMENT meeting could only begin after the Knesset convened for a rare Sunday session to pass a bill raising fines on those who break coronavirus regulations. The bill was finally passed on Sunday afternoon.
“The law applicable in Rishon [Lezion] and Herzliya will be equally applicable in Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer," Gantz had stressed last week, as a precursor to the cabinet convening. 
"This is a big win for Blue and White, but it is primarily a win for the people, and a win in the battle against infection,” Blue and White said in a statement following the Knesset vote. “Equal enforcement is not a measure taken against the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] sector; it is a measure designed for their benefit and for the benefit of every Israeli citizen.”
Health officials hope that extending the lockdown will buy more time for Israel to reach a higher number of immunized citizens.
As noted, some 1,729,000 Israelis, almost 20% of the country’s population, have already received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and about another 1.3 million have received their first.
Over the weekend, 178,000 people were vaccinated.
“Tonight, the government will have to choose between two proposals: either to extend the lockdown or to open everything,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said before the Knesset plenum. “I will not play games. Ten days ago we asked for a two-week lockdown.
“Why have we gone through the uncertainty of the last few days?” he asked. “Because it was necessary to shorten the proposal of the Health Ministry. Why? I do not know.
“Tonight the government will have to decide between the two options,” the health minister said. “If someone does not like it, they will need to take responsibility for once. Let us open up the whole economy and see the results – for those who say that the closure is unnecessary and does not work.”