Netanyahu warns ‘pandemic is most definitely not behind us’

What happened: On Saturday night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against a loosening of discipline in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Netanyahu said: “We have had very major successes in the fight against corona, successes on a global scale. But the pandemic is most definitely not behind us. It is running amok in the world and it is still here in Israel – among us and in our midst. We extinguished the greatest flames of the conflagration in the country but we have been left with the smouldering embers which a slight breeze can fan ablaze and carry the fire to other places. Nobody is immune.”
  • For now the government is not imposing additional restrictions but may have to if citizens don’t abide by regulations. Netanyahu urged Israelis to keep their distance from one another, wear masks, and wash their hands.
  • Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting that “the Health Ministry is able to perform 15,000 tests per day,” and he urged “all citizens – if you think you are sick, or have any symptoms, or you think you were near a sick person – get it checked out”.
  • There had been a five-fold increase in the number of people testing positive for coronavirus in the last few days. According to the Health Ministry, over 100 people tested positive on Friday. Yesterday, 53 people tested positive out of 2,874 tests conducted, raising the total number of cases to 17,071.
  • Edelstein announced that his office is changing its regulations in order to make coronavirus testing more widely available, including to those who are asymptomatic.
  • In Jerusalem, 1,577 students and teachers are currently in quarantine, among them 990 who were quarantined on Saturday. At the Gymnasia school, 122 people have been diagnosed with the virus – 104 students, 15 teachers and three parents.
  • Finance Minister Yisrael Katz is preparing a plan to rehabilitate the economy, including grants to businesses that bring back their employees, and added that over half a billion shekels had been budgeted for businesses.
  • However, at yesterday’s cabinet meeting the ministers approved a 1.5 per cent across-the-board cut in government ministries, for the purposes of establishing the new ministries as outlined in the unity agreement. They approved the allocation of budgets for establishing the Ministry of Settlement, the Ministry of Digital and Cyber, the Ministry of Minorities, the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Ministry of Community Strengthening and Advancement.

Context: Overall, 17,012 people in Israel have so far tested positive for the coronavirus; 285 people have died. Israel currently has 2,001 active cases, with 34 in serious condition, all of whom are on ventilators.

  • Health Minister Edelstein added: “One of the most significant changes: Members of a verified patient’s family, even if they are asymptomatic, will be checked on the same day as their family member is diagnosed and then again five days later.”
  • To pay for the new ministries there will be cuts of tens of millions of shekels in various ministries including health, justice, foreign and defence.
  • The cabinet also approved creating the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office, but is not yet clear on the size of its staff or budget. So far, only Gantz’s close adviser, Hod Betzer, has been appointed as director-general for the office.
  • Netanyahu also confirmed there will be no building of a special residence for the alternate prime minister, despite a clause in the unity agreement giving the alternate prime minister the same conditions as the prime minister regarding an office, security and a residence. Gantz intends to remain living at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin.
  • In response to the funding of the new ministries, Leader of the Opposition Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid-Telem) said: “The government transferred half a billion shekels, not to the self-employed, not to the unemployed, not to small businesses, but to itself. To superfluous ministries such as the Water Resources Ministry, the Ministry of Non-Existent Communities, and to superfluous deputy ministers that no one needs. Disconnected people, we’ve had quite enough of you.”
  • The opposition also expressed grave concern over Netanyahu’s proposal to pass a “coronavirus law” that would allow the government to impose emergency measures on the public for up to 10 months.  They fear the law could be used as a tool to prevent public demonstrations. However, Justice Minister Nissenkorn said the law is meant “provide the government with effective tools to combat the virus, while preserving the rights of individuals”.

Looking ahead: The government is encouraging more people to get tested. At the cabinet meeting yesterday, Netanyahu expressed concern over the “loosening of discipline,” but added, “I do not know whether to say ‘with it’ or ‘because of it’; the data is still not clear.

  • The next few days will be critical to see whether there will be a second wave of infections.

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