Israel Won't Allow Cities to Use Information on Coronavirus Patients to Enforce Self-isolation

New regulation permits municipalities to receive information on those who must self-isolate, but it cannot be used to ensure compliance – and some mayors are angry

Or Kashti
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A policeman in Bnei Brak.
A policeman in Bnei Brak, where a coronavirus lockdown was imposed, April 5, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Or Kashti

Information on residents exposed to the coronavirus that local Israeli authorities will now be receiving from the national government may not be used to ensure that the people remain in quarantine, according to a new regulation. Mayors expressed outrage at the limitation placed on their use of the information, saying it will cost lives.

The Union of Local Authorities had sought to receive full details on all coronavirus patients so munipical officials could perform “enforcement of home quarantine.” The new regulation in response to this request was drafted by the justice, health, interior and social affairs ministries and circulated over the weekend, and is to go into effect immediately. Officials at the ministries said the regulation aims to balance the monitoring needs of local authorities and concern over public health, on one hand, with the right to privacy.

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According to the regulation, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz, the Health Ministry will give interested local governments lists of residents who are required to be in quarantine, along with the individual's identity number, address and telephone number.

But the regulation states that the information can only be used for two purposes: “Assisting those in home quarantine and their families to cope with the difficulties posed by the obligation to quarantine,” and to “assist in finding an alternative isolation site,” if needed.

The regulation also notes that the information provided cannot be used “for any other purpose,” and particularly not “for the purposes of monitoring patients, following their movements, epidemiological investigations, enforcement of Health Ministry guidelines and warning the public.”

The ban on enforcing the government’s guidelines and on warning the public gets special emphasis: “It should be clear that this regulation does not allow local authorities to oversee and enforce the obligation to quarantine. If the police need the help of local authority inspectors, it will instruct them on the nature of the enforcement,” the document says.

In addition, all information must be deleted within 14 days, in the case of someone self-quarantining, and 21 days for a confirmed coronavirus case. Employees at municipal hot lines and other units, “will get a daily list of patients or others whom they must contact that day. They must not be given access to the entire list,” the regulation states.

Local council heads exoressed amazement at the limitation. According to Modi’in Mayor Haim Bibas, who is also chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, emergency regulations gave local governments explicit permission in emergency regulations approved two weeks ago to enforce home quarantine.

But according to a government source familiar with the details, the police are responsible for enforcement, and “they will decide when and how to get help from the local government. We’re talking about sensitive authority, and the locales can use it only alongside the police and under their guidance.”

Bibas said this regulation is damaging to public health. Without detailed and complete information about every patient – including information about his or her movements before being diagnosed – “supermarkets and pharmacies will continue to employ cashiers who have come in contact with patients, without their knowing it,” he said.

“We are telling you that you – who are responsible for public health – will have to give an accounting for abandoning it, and explain why you refused to let local government [to provide support] to help save lives,” said Bibas.

Soldiers from the Home Front Command distributing food in Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

It should be noted that the new regulation does not in any way affect the digital monitoring that the Shin Bet security service is conducting so the Health Ministry can warn people that they’ve been in close proximity to a coronavirus carrier, and therefore must self-quarantine.

'Critical to the success of the struggle'

In deliberations last week, some of the local authorities wanted information not just on sick people and those required to self-quarantine, but on patients who had recovered and those who had died, in addition to other information, including single-parent families and parents of special-needs children requiring quarantine and the findings of the epidemiological investigations of coronavirus carriers.

“Sharing the information with the local authorities is critical to the success of the struggle against the spread of the coronavirus,” wrote Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein to Justice Ministry deputy director-general Sigal Yaakobi. “It can’t be that because of a criminal decision by jurists, information that is so critical to saving lives won’t be transferred to us, the local authorities. I must stress with much pain and regret that if this information doesn’t get to the local authorities, all the lives that will be lost will be on the heads of those jurists who blocked the information.”

In response to Rubinstein, Deputy Attorneys General Dina Zilber and Raz Nazri wrote, “We worked to find the proper balance between the pressing need to transfer information to help the local authorities and protect the public’s security and health, and the concern about a broad undermining of the privacy of local residents that could occur.” It was therefore decided to reject various requests to allow a sweeping transfer of information, they said, but “if later on there is a professional need to transfer information for other purposes, the issues will be examined.”

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