Ministers fail to decide on next stage of exit strategy

Edelstein: We need to learn lessons from reopening after first wave so we don’t have a third one.

Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After nearly six hours of intense debate, the coronavirus cabinet meeting ended  on Wednesday with a decision that no decisions will be made until next week. The ministers are expected to formally reconvene on the next stage of the country’s exit strategy next Monday.
The meeting should have celebrated the decline in infection across Israel: the number of daily cases has gone down, the reproduction rate is low and hospitals are seeing a decrease in serious and intubated patients.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry reported that 1,171 people tested positive for the virus the day before out of 42,518 tests done – a rate of just 2.75%. As of Wednesday night, there were 596 coronavirus sufferers in serious condition with 232 on ventilators. The death toll from the virus stood at 2,291.
The next stage of the ministry’s exit plan is supposed to start in a week and a half, when there are around 1,000 new cases per day. That stage includes opening classrooms for students in grades 1-4 and resuming alternative medicine and nonmedical treatments.
But instead of moving forward, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started the meeting discussing how Israel might be required to halt or move backward. He warned ministers that restrictions could be reimposed should the situation begin to worsen.
“If we see that there is an increase again, which is now happening in European countries, we’ll be compelled to reimpose some of the restrictions,” the prime minister said. “We must first know the facts… Israel was ranked first in morbidity per capita in Europe. We imposed a lockdown and [our infection statistics] came down quickly. The other countries of Europe that did not impose lockdowns and did not impose tough restrictions went up quickly.
“Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands – all these countries now have higher morbidity than ours – except for Germany, which is also going up,” he said. “I am asking for your cooperation so we can succeed.”
Soon, Netanyahu said, the steps of the plan would need to be reduced, likely from nine to five – a move that Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz has reportedly agreed to but that health officials strongly oppose.
“At least in the first stages we need to be really careful,” said head of Public Health Sharon Alroy-Preis on Wednesday, in a statement revealed by Channel 12. “If we open retail and education at the same time and the infection rate goes up, we won’t know what caused it and what to close.”
A statement by the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office later stated that the plan is still to base the exit strategy on data and not dates, and that there will be at least 14 days between each stage.
“The discussion about the number of stages in the program and the content of each stage will continue next week,” the statement said.
THE CABINET meeting quickly erupted into a verbal boxing match over opening schools. The ministry has said that if classes resume, children will be required to learn in capsules beginning in first grade, all teachers and students will need to wear masks, and there can be no mixing of students – even on buses or in after-school programming.
The ministry presented statistics to help support its position: Some 8% of 677,000 children who were screened for the virus tested positive. Health officials also brought data from the serological survey – a report that was released two weeks ago – showing that 5.5% of children aged 0-10 have likely had coronavirus, as well as 8.1% of 10-18-year-olds.
Shortly before the meeting, Haim Bibas, the mayor of Modi’in and chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, sent a letter to the prime minister in which he said that “it is expected that health experts will present clear data that explain the sharp change in [the ministry’s] position – and won’t turn this school year into a lost year and victimize children and parents.”
He called on schools to reopen, but according to the Health Ministry’s capsule plan.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant, however, reiterated the warning he gave earlier this week: Opening in capsules, which represents a change to the original agreement between the Health and Education ministries, would cost around NIS 6 billion and would take up to five weeks to implement from the time the money was secured.
The Finance Ministry has said that it won’t pay for the plan.
However, the arguments were not just about education. Each minister in turn asked for another change in the outline.
“All businesses should be allowed to offer ‘takeaway’ beginning tomorrow,” Finance Minister Israel Katz said at the meeting. He added that small businesses, hair salons and beauty parlors, street shops and bed and breakfasts should be allowed to resume operation on Sunday.
He suggested that the government flip stages two and three to allow businesses and retail to operate even before resuming classes for students in grades 1-4.
“The Health Ministry must stop suffocating Israel’s businesses,” he stressed. “The government is responsible for Israeli society and economy.”
Transportation Minister Miri Regev said salons and beauty parlors should be allowed to operate. Interior Minister Arye Deri fought again to roll out a new framework for weddings, which would allow the bride and the groom each to host 20 guests in capsules.
“All gatherings are dangerous,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said. “I will not approve capsules, because we know how it will end.”
In official and leaked statements, Edelstein held his ground, stressing that the Health Ministry would not accept a single change to the original plans at this time. He warned that the country needs to “learn lessons” from the first wave “so we don’t have a third wave.”
He said that he was seeing a lot of ministers at the cabinet “courageously” pushing for this or that to open immediately. “I suggest that they have the courage to explain what not to open, as well.”
His ministry disseminated a statement calling on ministers to “act responsibly and stately, and certainly not out of populism. For the sake of public health and the Israeli economy, everyone should learn from the first exit.”
The post-meeting statement said that the conflict over education would be solved next week, and that the Health Ministry would prepare a formal response to issues raised by the minister during the cabinet meeting.
Shortly before the cabinet convened, the final neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem was removed from the list of red cities and neighborhoods that were put under strict lockdown regulations because of high rates of infection.
Lockdowns on all other Israeli cities and neighborhoods were removed Tuesday by a declaration from the ministerial committee and a joint message from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry as the infection rate dropped.
At the meeting, Coronavirus Project Coordinator Ronni Gamzu suggested a new designation that would identify cities on the verge of becoming red so action could be taken.•