Coronavirus: Third lockdown to start on Sunday

Closures to start at 5 p.m. • Nearly 4,000 cases diagnosed in last day

Police are seen setting up a checkpoint for drivers, during Israel's second lockdown, September 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Police are seen setting up a checkpoint for drivers, during Israel's second lockdown, September 2020.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israel will head into its third lockdown on Sunday at 5 p.m., after cabinet ministers voted late Wednesday night to take action to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The government voted in favor of a Health Ministry proposal to shut the country down for at least two weeks or until there are no more than 1,000 new cases per day, as the novel coronavirus burned across Israel at a rate of nearly 4,000 cases per day.
“Everyone understands that this lockdown must be entered quickly,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “There is an argument about a day or two.”
At 9 p.m., Netanyahu called for an hour break to discuss the details of the lockdown with “relevant ministers,” but he said the cabinet would reconvene and “make a decision tonight.”
The lockdown includes restricting movement to no more than 1 kilometer from home. In addition, all nonessential retail and leisure activities will shutter.
Businesses that are not customer-facing will operate at 50%, while public transportation will run at 50%, as well.
In contrast to prior lockdowns, preschools and grades 1-4 and 11-12 will operate part of the day. Special education will not be affected.
The insistence on such restrictions came against the backdrop of a dangerous spike in infection and the revelation that at least four cases of the British mutation were discovered in the country.
There were 3,762 new cases of the virus on Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported, plus another 827 between midnight and press time on Wednesday. Some 502 people were in serious condition, including 107 who were intubated.
The death toll stood at 3,141.
“A third wave of the pandemic is striking the entire world with unprecedented strength,” Netanyahu said. “Many thousands in Europe and the US are dying on a daily basis. It could be that some of this is connected to the new mutation, or the onset of winter, or both, but this is a fact about which there is no debate.
“With us as well there is a very sharp increase in morbidity, even though our mortality and severe morbidity are on a much lower level than in most of these countries,” he continued. “If we do not take immediate action, it will not stay this way and there will be a very sharp increase in both severe cases and in deaths. If we delay in taking steps against morbidity and the severe outbreak that we are seeing, we will pay a very heavy price in health, in lives and vis-à-vis the economy.”
His words were followed by a presentation by coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, which showed just how fast the virus is spreading.
“We stand at an average of 2,931 new cases per day,” said Ben-Shabbat – more than double what the country had when the lockdown started to be lifted. He said that Israel had an average of 107 deaths in the past week and called the increase “alarming.”
Ash warned that another 3,000 Israelis would likely die of COVID-19 within the next two months if the country does not shut down.
“It should be understood that there is no escape from closure,” he said Wednesday, ahead of a government meeting at which the ministry plans to push for a lockdown. “If they [government ministers] had acted in accordance with our recommendations two weeks ago, it might have been possible to avoid it. As we predicted, morbidity has risen significantly, including severe morbidity.
“If we continue with the ‘sit and do not act’ method, unfortunately the morbidity will continue to skyrocket,” he added. “So far the forecasts have been accurate; let’s not endanger public health.”
But his negative predictions came as his ministry announced Wednesday that 65,000 vaccines were administered throughout the day, bringing the total number of inoculations to 140,000. Earlier, it showed that Israel had administered more vaccine doses per capita than any other country.
Yet Netanyahu said these vaccinations would not work in time.
“If there are so many vaccines, why is it necessary to take restrictive measures?” the prime minister asked. “The answer is that speed here is critical. The disease is doubling itself every few days, and the pace of vaccines, rapid as it is, is not doubling itself. It cannot match the crazy speed of the outbreak of the disease. If we do not block it now, we will see an even bigger increase in morbidity. The number of nurses, doctors, paramedics and medics who are injecting the vaccines is not doubling itself every few days; therefore, it is necessary to block the pandemic. Not today – but yesterday.”
While the Health Ministry’s clear recommendation was for a closure of the education system, others expressed different opinions, which were ultimately respected.
Prof. Tzachi Grossman, chairman of the Israeli Pediatric Association, made an impassioned plea to keep schools for young children open.
“The decision to impose a total closure, including on the education system, is wrong,” he said. “Preschool, kindergarten and children in grades first through fourth grade must not be included. Their inclusion in the closure will take us many months back, to the threat of the cumulative physical and mental damage, and God forbid we may see more and more sick children, and not from Corona! Trying to fight Corona again on the backs of the children creates serious problems – an increase in anxiety and depression, an increase in obesity, difficulty from clinging to screens and more. As pediatricians, who are committed to protecting their health, we state: Children up to fourth grade – that is, up to the age of 10 – are getting infected and infect others very little.”
He added that, “Teaching should be continued in accordance with the rules, while masks are worn by teachers and students. The children of Israel must not be imprisoned in their homes.“
Economy Minister Amir Peretz pushed back, urging that closing down commerce should center on cost-benefit considerations – reducing morbidity alongside minimizing further economic harm.
He pushed to keep open non-customer facing businesses and preschools, both of which ultimately passed.

Hannah Brown contributed to this report.