The coronavirus cabinet approved on Thursday several measures to ease Israel's nationwide lockdown that began September 25. Infections rates have begun to decline, and pressure for an accelerated exit has been mounting.
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At the beginning of the cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The lockdown up to now has been a huge success,” and added: “They are beginning to talk about [our] success in other countries, particularly in Europe, where in several countries the incidence of disease has already surpassed ours. At the moment, they are deliberating over a question that we also deliberated over and made a decision on – whether to have a lockdown.”
“We are seeing a consistent and clear decline in all of the numbers,” the prime minster said, adding that the government plans to use Health Ministry data along with expert opinions to formulate "a gradual easing of the conditions of the current lockdown."
Two main issues were expected to spark conflict, but no decision has been made on either. The first is whether to maintain the lockdown in communities with continued high infection rates, called “red” under the “traffic light” plan. Most are ultra-Orthodox, and this move would meet resistance and increased pressure on the prime minister and members of the special cabinet.
“We will insist on a gradual, slow exit, one step at a time, in keeping with the plan and based on the infection rates,” the head of the ministry’s public health services, Dr. Sharon Alroi-Preiss, told Haaretz. “It must be understood that to implement the exit plan, there will have to be closures on red cities. We aren’t talking about just closure of the city from the outside – no one in or out, but also closure within the city itself. Closure is not a punishment. The meaning of a red city is that these cities will receive the greatest help possible to limit infection,” she said.
The cabinet was presented with an updated list of red cities, which as of now include 12: Bnei Brak, Rechesim, Modi’in Ilit, Bet Shemesh, Betar Ilit, Kiryat Malachi, Ofakim, Ramle, Netivot, Or Yehuda and neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The list might change before the meeting takes place, in accordance with infection rates.
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The second issue is the extent to which schools will be opened in the first phase of the exit, which is expected next week. The current dispute is over reopening grades 1-4. The Education Ministry is pressing for these classes to begin next week, while the Health Ministry wants to wait for a return to school in the next phase, two weeks later, in keeping with its plan and the infection rate. Representatives of the ministries are now in talks in an attempt to reach agreements.
According to the Health Ministry plan, educational frameworks to open next week are for age 0–6. Ahead of the reopening of kindergartens, teachers and aides have been undergoing coronavirus testing. The Health Ministry is also insisting that regular teaching staff not be changed or substituted.
The health care system is keeping a worried eye on the education system, where the exit during the first wave of the virus was a catalyst that led to the beginning of the second wave.
Infection rates are falling every day and are quickly approaching the goals set by the Health Ministry. It is believed that if the current trend continues the goal will be reached by the beginning of next week. On Tuesday, confirmed new cases stood at 2,285. The number of people testing positive for the virus was 5.4 percent of 41,000 tests, which means an R rate, or viral reproduction rate, of 0.66, which is below the threshold of 0.8 set by the ministry as a condition to begin the exit from lockdown.
The figures are encouraging, but the Health Ministry is worried that they will obviate the bitter lessons of the exit from the first lockdown, which together with economic and social damage and the pressure that comes with it – will lead to a significant change in the plan and a hurried exit from lockdown. Considering the red ultra-Orthodox communities, this could lead to a repeat of political pressures by mayors of Haredi cities that will cause the cabinet to back down.