Netanyahu warns city leaders he won’t rush country out of lockdown

Local authorities to step up role in planning country’s exit strategy

PM Benjamin Netanyahu meets with local authorities, Oct. 7 (photo credit: PMO)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu meets with local authorities, Oct. 7
(photo credit: PMO)
The infection rate in Israel has declined for almost a week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, told local officials on Wednesday that he will not rush to exit the lockdown like he did after the first coronavirus wave.
During a Zoom meeting, the prime minister said that, while the country is seeing a positive trend, “it could easily go the other way and the country could once again enter a long and unnecessary lockdown.”
Some 200 mayors participated in the online meeting, along with the head of the National Security Council and the public security minister.
Netanyahu said it will only be next week that the country will be able to discuss the easing or tightening of the current closure; a coronavirus cabinet meeting is set to be held on Tuesday. As such, he sought the assistance of the mayors in preventing protests and achieving adherence to the Health Ministry guidelines.
The prime minister asked the mayors to help avoid gatherings on Simhat Torah, which takes place this Friday night and Saturday, by finding places for small, outdoor minyanim (quorums) to pray.
The Health Ministry has expressed concern that dancing and other holiday gatherings could lead to another outbreak, the results of which would only be seen in about 10 days from Saturday.
Netanyahu directed Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to hold a special meeting on police relations and ultra-Orthodox society with ultra-Orthodox council heads, leaders and opinion-makers in order to prevent tension and increase cooperation.
“I need your help to prevent weddings and other festive gatherings,” Netanyahu said. If there is enough obedience on the part of the citizens, “we would end the plague.”
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein expressed similar sentiments later in the day when he spoke from the innovation center at Sheba Medical Center.
“There are very small, preliminary reasons today to be encouraged,” Edelstein said. “The public must keep the guidelines, even on Simhat Torah.”
He said that the “hakafot” circle dancing that “in normal years brings us so much joy… this year, it is a terrible danger.”
The health minister added that “there should be no expectation of the economy opening wide up next week – it will take more time. We will not take steps just because some date has come.”
Although the details of an exit plan are not finalized, based on Wednesday’s Zoom meeting, it can be assumed that local municipalities will be more involved in the decision-making.
Going forward, Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, will attend coronavirus cabinet meetings.
Following the meeting, Netanyahu ordered an immediate evaluation of the possibility of giving local councils authority to cut the chain of infection, and to act to synchronize information systems and ensure the flow of necessary information to the councils in order to manage the areas under their responsibility, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of frustration by several mayors that they were being handed instructions by the coronavirus cabinet but were not involved in the decision-making.
“Many times, the cabinet makes different decisions and the mayors are told about them like all the citizens – through the media,” Efrat Municipal Council head Oded Revivi told The Jerusalem Post. “Sometimes these decisions have implications for us and we need to be organized and make sure we can carry them out. We need a representative there to make this communication faster and more direct.”
Bibas said that in the meeting, “we raised the challenges and bureaucratic complexities that we encounter every day in managing the crisis in our authorities.”
Revivi had spearheaded the penning of a letter that was signed by 100 mayors and sent to Netanyahu. The letter pushed for a seat at the coronavirus cabinet table for a representative of the local councils.
The mayors pushed the prime minister to consider opening earlier than planned by implementing a modified version of coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s traffic-light program, which would lock down and reduce activity in “red” cities, but allow “green” cities to operate more freely.
“There are no green cities,” Netanyahu stressed in response. He said that Israel has “no choice – we must reduce morbidity” and therefore the country is locked down. But he acknowledged that “the goal is to get to the traffic-light program again.”
The Health Ministry reported some 4,685 new coronavirus patients out of 47,007 people screened on Tuesday – a 10% infection rate, down from the day before. On Wednesday between midnight and press time, there had been 2,552 new cases out of 31,948 people screened – an 8% infection rate.
Some 867 patients were in serious condition, among them 241 who were intubated. The death toll reached 1,818.
The purpose of Edelstein’s visit to Sheba was to present more information about the Sofia coronavirus test, which is performed only using respiratory specimens collected from individuals who are suspected of having the virus. The FDA-approved, innovative technology provides results within 15 minutes.
He also spoke about other innovative technologies that the Health Ministry is reviewing and that could be available soon.
The presentation came against the backdrop of another day of too few people being screened for the virus. Before Yom Kippur, between 60,000 and 70,000 people were being tested daily.
He said that one of the things that has prevented the country from consistently increasing the number of tests is laboratories, which have complained they do not have enough manpower. The Health Ministry added 70 new government-funded positions and signed contracts with private labs. However, he said this new faster test will be a game-changer in Israel’s management of coronavirus.
“Obviously the ability to perform a large number of tests at a fast pace will change the rules of the game. This is the difference between a closed economy and educational institutions and a situation of open institutions and shopping centers,” Edelstein said.
He said Israel will soon be able to test 100,000 people a day.
According to Health Ministry deputy director-general Prof. Itamar Grotto, who was also at the presentation, Israel already has the ability to test 70,000 people per day.
Following Edelstein’s presentation, Esther Admon, head of the union of biochemists and laboratory workers, said that “the Sofia kit, which allows rapid detection in about 15 minutes of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is not 100% reliable. The sensitivity of the test in symptomatic patients is only 84%.”
She stressed that if a person tests negative, an additional standard PCR test should be taken to rule out infection. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing, the reported rate of false negatives is as low as 2% and as high as 37%.
Finally, Finance Minister Israel Katz said that he will continue his push to open private businesses immediately after the coronavirus cabinet meeting next week. He said that he will not let the financial crisis deepen and “millions of people… starve because of an incorrect decision by the Health Ministry to close the economy without due diligence and without any medical justification.”
His statements were revealed on Channel 12.
He said that instead of stepping up enforcement in places where people are getting infected, the government made a decision to shut down customer-facing businesses where infection has not been found.
“It cannot be that gatherings of up to 10 people are permitted but that businesses with up to 10 employees cannot operate – no one can accept this,” he said.
Netanyahu later responded to Katz by saying that the closure was logical and that he will not accept this kind of pressure from within the government, which is “aimed at garnering votes at the expense of public health.”