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Israel begins second phase of lifting lockdown restrictions

What happened: Israel has begun lifting coronavirus restrictions on public activities as the number of new cases continues to fall.

  • Half a million pupils in year one to four returned to school yesterday, following a break of a month and a half. Children will be divided into pods of up to 20 and will be required to wear masks during lessons and breaktime.
  • B&Bs, hair salons, beauty parlours and driving instructors were allowed to reopen yesterday, as were nature reserves and national parks to the public.
  • Synagogues also reopened, provided that no more than ten people assemble indoors and no more than 20 assemble outside. Weddings and other celebrations are also now permitted under similar restrictions.
  • According to the Health Ministry this morning, there were 676 new cases confirmed over Sunday out of 21,115 tests, representing a positivity rate of 3.1 per cent. There are currently 372 patients in serious condition, 170 of them on ventilators.
  • Also yesterday, clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine on human patients began. The vaccine was developed by the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the trial will be conducted on 80 volunteers.
  • On Saturday night, tens of thousands of people again demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and governmental corruption at dozens of locations across the country.

Context: On Sunday the Health Ministry revealed that for the first time since July 2, Israel has less than 10,000 active coronavirus cases. Since the start of the pandemic, 2,554 people have died.

  • The Health Ministry is, however, concerned about hidden morbidity due to the drop in the number of coronavirus tests being administered in ultra-Orthodox areas. There is also concern that morbidity in the Arab sector is rising. Israeli Arab leaders have expressed concern over the resumption of large weddings and blamed tourists returning from holidays in Turkey.
  • While some businesses could open yesterday, many street front shops were instructed to remain closed for another week, causing further anger and distress for hundreds of small businesses that face a battle to survive.
  • The debate over when to allow shops to open has created a rift between senior Likud ministers. Finance Minister Israel Katz has called for allowing shops to reopen on Tuesday against the opinion of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. Katz wrote on Facebook: “The Health Ministry’s stubbornness is unnecessary and without factual basis and leading to anarchy and a lack of oversight, which will only increase morbidity.”
  • There is continued growing concern within the Blue and White Party over lack of progress in passing a budget for 2021. According to Yediot Ahronot this morning, the Blue and White leadership is internally divided. Leader Benny Gantz currently favours a flexible approach to allow Prime Minister Netanyahu to have the budget approved even after the date set in the coalition agreement. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi say that an unequivocal decision must be made and not drag out time.
  • If a budget is not passed by December 23 the Knesset automatically disbands and new elections will be held. According to the coalition agreement, this is the last juncture in which Netanyahu will remain as interim prime minister during the election campaign.

Looking ahead: In the Knesset today the opposition will present a range of no-confidence motions in the government. Yesh Atid-Telem intends to introduce a constructive no-confidence motion, which it has titled: “The failure of the government to pass a state budget and its forsaking the citizens in the face of the coronavirus crisis.”

  • Following its initial stage, the coronavirus vaccine trial will be expanded to 960 people in December. Should those trials succeed, a third stage with 30,000 volunteers is scheduled for April/May. The third phase will also take place overseas, in a country with a high coronavirus infection rate. If all goes well, the vaccine could be available by the end of next summer.

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