Coronavirus: Cabinet to reconvene today after no decisions made day before

Nearly 4% of people screened for virus test positive

Israelis are seen walking along Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem in the lead-up to Hanukkah, wearing masks in accordance with coronavirus restrictions, on December 6, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen walking along Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem in the lead-up to Hanukkah, wearing masks in accordance with coronavirus restrictions, on December 6, 2020.
The coronavirus cabinet meeting that was meant to make decisions about rising infection and restrictions over the Hanukkah holiday ended after three hours with no decisions. Instead, the ministers will meet again Monday to determine the country’s coronavirus fate.
“We opened the economy and there was a wild increase in morbidity,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “This geometric growth does not afford us a chance to wait.” But he said the country could wait another 24 hours for the cabinet to make any final decisions.
“We will continue the discussion tomorrow at 7 p.m.,” he said.
In a video after the meeting, he stressed to the public that “I will not hesitate to reimpose some of the restrictions – and the earlier we do so, the duration of the restrictions will be shorter.
“We need to work together, bring the vaccines and impose the restrictions so that we lower morbidity, and we will come out of this,” the prime minister said.
The Health Ministry began the meeting by presenting an ominous situation that showed Israel could have more than 3,000 new cases per day in only two weeks if the status quo is maintained. That number would top 4,000 a week later and 9,000 by January 10, including 825 patients in serious condition.
As such, the ministry requested immediate action, including closing all commerce in red and orange cities and perhaps all across the country.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash offered two options: either the government tighten restrictions or enforce a lockdown.
In any scenario, stores and businesses that are open to the public would be closed, as would malls and marketplaces. Gatherings would be limited to 10 people inside and 20 outside. The education systems would completely be shut down in red and orange zones, except for preschools. Restrictions would also be tightened on those who returned from abroad.
ON HANUKKAH, Ash said, families should be instructed to celebrate together without any large gatherings or parties. Christians are also called on to reduce any major gatherings on Christmas.
He also recommended that people returning from all countries – red and green – be required to enter quarantine.
The Health Ministry is also pushing to reduce the number of travelers once again on public transport, from 75% to 50% capacity.
The list of restrictions was not only based on projections, but on what has been a rapid rise in infection for the last nearly two weeks. On Sunday, the ministry reported 988 new cases on Saturday – 3.9% of those screened – and another 870 between midnight and press time on Sunday.
There were 329 people in serious condition, including 85 who were intubated.
Included among the newly infected are residents of about 67 senior living facilities across the country, according to the Association of Geriatrics in Israel.
“The Health Ministry is not fulfilling its obligations and thus bringing dozens of institutions to the brink of collapse with its own hands,” the association said.
According to the situation presented by head of the National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat, the reproduction rate (R) is 1.24, meaning that every four infected people will infect five others.
AS USUAL there were a number of escalations between the ministers.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein stressed that “the situation with the vaccines is not just that we need to hold on another few weeks and all will be good. Coronavirus will be with us for a long time. I want to recommend halting our desires to open up more and instead discuss where we stop and lock down.”
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz asked if there was any chance of preventing a lockdown, to which Ash replaced, “if we tighten restrictions and carry out what we are recommending – there is a chance.”
A focus of the conversation was whether to continue with the mall pilot program, which was supposed to end Sunday night. The cabinet eventually decided to extend the pilot by 48 additional hours, until midnight on Tuesday. 
As noted, the Health Ministry said it believes that the malls should close. The shopping centers have been packed with people and the results of those gatherings are still unknown.
“I do not think it would be right to open more malls ahead of the Hanukkah holiday,” Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy told Kan on Sunday morning.
On the other side, the Finance and Economy ministries are pushing to keep the malls open. They said data shows that the pilot worked.
“If after the success of the pilot we decide to close the malls, it is a slap in the face of the public,” said Economy Minister Amir Peretz. He said that under no circumstances should the malls close. In fact, he said that more should open to alleviate congestion.
Peretz was backed by an unlikely ally: the deputy head of the National Security Council, Eytan Ben-David. He said that “the pilot has proven that the malls are the most managed and safest” place for commerce.
DISCUSSIONS WERE also begun about how to handle travelers returning from red countries, especially Turkey and Serbia. These travelers are failing to isolate and are spreading infection across Israel.
The cabinet discussed, at Ash’s recommendation, requiring those returning from these countries to isolate in coronavirus hotels. Another idea under discussion is making tests available to them at the airport and again a few days later.
Related to this, Interior Minister Arye Deri said at the meeting that in light of the infection coming into Israel via the Palestinian Authority, “I propose the Palestinian workers come to Israel in capsules as they did during the first wave,” something to which Netanyahu said he agreed.
Also on the table was an idea from the Health Ministry, which is supported by Blue and White, that the country set a morbidity target; if Israel reaches it, then there will be a lockdown. This could center on the reproduction rate or on the percentage of people who test positive out of those screened.
In this scenario, the details of which were first revealed by N12, the public would be notified in advance that there would be a closure in about a month-and-a-half if the number of daily cases reaches 5,000 or the reproduction rate hits 1.4. The feeling is that announcing such a move in advance would allow businesses to get organized and perhaps drive people to better behavior to help avoid the lockdown.
It seems like that will be discussed further on Monday.
However, there is a “light at the end of the tunnel,” Netanyahu said on Sunday morning at the opening of the government’s full cabinet meeting.
He said that vaccines are on their way and the country is “preparing for a huge logistical operation to absorb the vaccines, store them and distribute them to the citizens of Israel.”
However, when pressed by Blue and White ministers at the coronavirus cabinet meeting to provide more detailed information on the immunization program, which has still not been shared with the rest of the ministers, Netanyahu was non-specific.
He said that there is a professional committee that has been set up which will deal with the issue of vaccines and how they are distributed.
“The political actors must be kept out of it, as is also the practice around the world,” he said. “This is a completely professional committee.”
Edelstein and Public Health head Sharon Alroy-Preis cautioned against over-optimism.
“The logistical operation is not simple,” Edelstein said. “Some vaccines must reach the right temperature. The public response to receiving the vaccines should be evaluated.”
Alroy-Preis reportedly said that the impact of the vaccines would likely only be felt beginning in March, in that two doses are required to ensure full immunity and there are several weeks between doses.
“Our exit plan cannot rely on the story of the vaccines,” Alroy-Preis was quoted as saying.