Israeli Cabinet Fails to Endorse Coronavirus Czar's Plan for New Fall Lockdown

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Medical staff member enters the coronavirus ward at the Shamir Medical Center, May 12, 2020.
Medical staff member enters the coronavirus ward at the Shamir Medical Center, May 12, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu on Thursday presented a comprehensive plan for imposing another lockdown during the High Holy Days period as Israel's infection rate keeps rising, but a ministerial committee meeting to discuss the proposal ended with no decision.

Should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accept the plan at a later date, the lockdown would likely last for several weeks spanning the Jewish holidays that start in mid-September.

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The so-called coronavirus cabinet wasn't expected to reach a final decision on the matter on Thursday, but Netanyahu will likely use the proposal to convey a message to the public.

Though the plan, which Gamzu dubs “tight restraint,” is still being finalized, it is expected to include aggressive measures such as closures, whether localized or nationwide. Other likely steps include shutting down public transportation; reducing both public and private-sector activity to a minimum; and closing hotels, restaurants, synagogues and other places where crowds gather.

In recent days Gamzu has held many discussions on the plan with senior economists and health officials.

But implementing it, or even publicizing its existence, could contradict Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, under which local governments have primary responsibility for managing the coronavirus crisis and institute different measures based on whether incidence of the virus in their community is labeled red (high), yellow (medium) or green (low).

Since being appointed coronavirus czar, Gamzu has invested most of his efforts in trying to persuade mayors to actively manage the crisis, with help from the army’s Home Front Command and the national government. He considers it essential to develop infrastructure and long-term management that would enable daily life to continue while also lowering incidence of the virus, even if this incidence only declines slowly.

“Because the coronavirus is a community event, it must be managed by local governments,” Gamzu said at a press briefing earlier this week. “Therefore, part of our policy is to stop managing the coronavirus from Jerusalem.”

A lockdown with movement limited to 100 meters from one's home, similar to the lockdown imposed in March when the outbreak began in Israel, “has very serious ramifications, and therefore, I’m not doing this,” Gamzu added. “But that means a gradual decline in incidence of the disease and sometimes halting in place while evaluating the hospitals’ workload.”

Nevertheless, he warned, “The holidays present us with another challenge on top of the existing challenges ... If we have a high incidence of the disease close to the holidays, we’ll have to think about restrictions. But at the moment, that’s premature.”

Prof. Ronni Gamzu at a press conference in Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv in April 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Yet behind the scenes, lockdowns are already under discussion, and one of the main questions Gamzu and his staff are debating is whether they should be nationwide or localized. Their assumption is that if there’s no epidemiological need for a nationwide lockdown, putting only “red” communities under lockdown would be preferable, in part for economic reasons.

But localized closures would pose their own problems. Most importantly, it might undermine public trust, because towns and cities where incidence of the illness is high – mainly ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities – might argue that they are being discriminated against. Gamzu has said these two sectors are the main cause why the rate of infection hasn’t declined.

“On one hand, a general lockdown would completely torpedo Gamzu’s ‘traffic light’ plan,” one a person involved in the issue said. “On the other hand, there’s a serious concern that lockdowns on ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods during the fall holidays wouldn’t get government backing. It would be very hard for ultra-Orthodox cabinet ministers to accept Yom Kippur without the Kol Nidrei prayer in synagogues.”

The professionals Gamzu is consulting aren’t all of one mind. Some say imposing localized lockdowns on red communities while permitting economic activity in green ones would cause less damage. Others say that a time when public trust is already fragile, the rules should be the same all over the country. And some even fear that localized closures during the fall holidays would spark great anger and civil disobedience.

But with his first month on the job rapidly coming to a close, both the government and the public are losing faith in Gamzu due to the continued high incidence of the virus.

Over the past few days, he has devoted himself to demonstrating the effectiveness of his traffic light model in the Druze town of Yarka. Within four days, thanks to joint efforts by the Home Front Command, the police, the Magen David Adom ambulance service, the health maintenance organizations, local government officials, clerics, Druze dignitaries and the Health Ministry, the chain of infection in Yarka had been severed enough that the ministry removed its warning against visiting the town.

“The Yarka operation was excellent,” a senior health care official said, “but another 100 such operations need to be carried out simultaneously. The fact is that of Gamzu’s activity still haven’t really shown results.”

Gamzu said the number of contact tracing operations has risen, but their quality hasn’t: “The quality isn’t good enough yet. The system is still being built, and by September 1” – the start of the school year – “we’ll still only be at two-thirds strength.” Coordination between various agencies, like the Home Front Command, the HMOs, Magen David Adom and the contact tracing system, also remains insufficient, he added.

Gamzu has been trying to buy time to build the necessary physical and managerial infrastructure. But it’s not clear that he has enough time left, given the impending start of the school year and the fall holidays.

Health care officials said they believe Netanyahu will use publication of the lockdown plan to warn the public to obey coronavirus regulations. But a poll released by the Health Ministry this week found that awareness of the problem is already high. Fully 95 percent of respondents said they wear masks every time they leave the house, 87 percent said they avoid congregating, 81 percent said they stay two meters away from other people and 84 percent said they support enforcing the rules.

Moreover, the energy and fighting spirit Gamzu brought to the job are beginning to lose their power. Senior health care officials said they feel helpless and in despair. They also said they’re having trouble figuring out what Israel’s real situation is and where it’s heading. On one hand, the number of new daily cases has stabilized. On the other hand, it stabilized at a high level, and the number of seriously ill patients has risen.

“None of Gamzu’s professional staff can predict what will happen tomorrow morning,” one said. “Aside from the talk, practical steps haven’t yet been taken. That explains the chaos we’re in.”

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