COVID-19 czar: If Purim causes new wave, Israel may need another lockdown

Ugandan variant identified in Israel, 90% of new cases are UK variant • Knesset Law Committee extends mandatory quarantine in hotels by 24h • Israir to start flights to Eilat

A teenager wears a costume as a reference to the coronavirus during the Jewish holiday of Purim, a celebration of the Jews' salvation from genocide in ancient Persia, as recounted in the Book of Esther. in Jerusalem March 8, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
A teenager wears a costume as a reference to the coronavirus during the Jewish holiday of Purim, a celebration of the Jews' salvation from genocide in ancient Persia, as recounted in the Book of Esther. in Jerusalem March 8, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
If Purim causes another wave of the virus, new restrictions – and even another lockdown – might need to be imposed on Israel, Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said on Sunday, as he revealed that some 90% of new cases identified in the country present the British variant of the virus and about 1% the South African variant, while seven cases of the California mutations and one case of a new Ugandan mutation have also been found.
Purim falls on Thursday night and Friday, except in Jerusalem, where the festival will last until Sunday this year, in an uncommon three-day celebration. Later in the day, Channel 12 reported that the Health Ministry is considering pushing to impose a night curfew to avoid illegal gatherings and parties.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday urged Israelis to refrain from large gatherings during the upcoming Purim holiday, adding that "more restrictions will be needed to ensure everyone's safety." 
Gantz also emphasized the importance of safely reopening both Ben-Gurion Airport as soon as possible, as well as the importance of returning grades 7-10 to schools.
“If the R rate rises again above 1, we will consider new restrictions,” Ash said in the briefing.
The expert also addressed the question of reopening the skies, shortly after the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee decided to extend the mandatory isolation in coronavirus hotels for those returning to Israel from abroad by only 24 hours, instead of until March 1 as the government requested last week.
The measure was set to expire at midnight on Sunday. The MKs supported the proposal of committee chairman MK Yaakov Asher to allow just a short extension to give the Health Ministry time to formulate alternative solutions for supervising those who require isolation.
“We are not talking about huge numbers, and perhaps the police will be able to tell us how home isolation can be enforced,” Asher said at the beginning of the meeting. He stressed that while he did not like the idea of some form of electronic surveillance to ensure that people quarantine at home, it would probably be better than forcing them to remain in a hotel.
ASH SAID at the briefing that finding a system to force people to respect the isolation will be one of the key factors in reopening the airport. The country’s borders are currently set to be closed until March 6.
“We are checking the whole process to see how we can handle a higher number of people flying, both in the framework of the airport and in terms of the isolation requirement and its enforcement,” Ash said. “When we find a system that prevents the spreading of variants, we will be able to increase the number of people who leave and enter the country.”
Starting from Sunday, about 2,000 Israelis per day are able to fly home from abroad, provided they received permission from the special governmental committee. All people are currently required to enter isolation in a hotel except for those who are fully vaccinated or who are exempt on a humanitarian basis.
While very limited international flights are operating from Ben-Gurion Airport, Israeli airline Israir announced the launch of “green flights" to Eilat.
STARTING FROM Tuesday, Israir will organize a flight a day reserved for those who are entitled to the green passport – individuals who are a week past their second coronavirus vaccination or who have recovered from the disease. The pilot program is aimed at allowing people to reach the Red Sea city hotels, which reopened Sunday. In the next few days, Eilat is expected to return to its “green island” status where facilities are also allowed to operate restaurants.
The airline stressed that the first flights will be sold at a special price: NIS 81 for Eilat residents and NIS 141 for residents of the rest of Israel. The flights will be numbered 315 and 316 – 316 being the numeric value of “yaroq,” the Hebrew word for green. In a subsequent phase, Israir said it will increase the number of flights and open them to the general public.
Hotels are also functioning under the green passport system, as well as gyms, swimming pools and cultural and sports events. The race to obtain the certificate through the Traffic Light app by the Health Ministry and on the ministry’s website has strained the IT infrastructure, with many people lamenting over problems. The ministry’s portal featuring data about the pandemic was down for several hours from Saturday night to Sunday morning, and on Sunday evening still carried the data from Friday.
Also on Sunday, several municipalities, including Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba announced that they were going to open grades 7-10 again already this week, contrary to the directive of the Health Ministry. Schoolchildren in this group have largely remained home during the past year.
Some 1,240 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported on Saturday, according to a Sunday morning update by the ministry. While the data is only partially meaningful since on Shabbat the numbers of tests administered is consistently significantly lower than on weekdays, the figure of patients in serious conditions and the R rate also remained encouraging.
Some 857 were in serious condition including 273 on ventilators. The R rate, which measures the ability of the disease to spread, was stable at 0.79, showing that the pandemic is receding.
The death toll rose to 5,569.