It’s been a while since Israelis have heard some good news, but on Sunday night, just before the nightly news, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced that the government will be lifting all coronavirus restrictions as of next week. This means it will be possible to go anywhere with anyone – including children and unvaccinated people – and without any special social distancing limitations, save for masks.
In addition, Edelstein announced, he will soon be holding meetings regarding indoor mask laws. “Israel is returning to normal!” Edelstein declared – a statement Israelis could have only dreamed of just a few months ago. “We conducted the best vaccination campaign in the world. For a while now, we have been reaping the fruits of the vaccines with low infection rates.”
Edelstein was careful to note in his announcement that the decision was made “after consultations with senior officials in the Health Ministry,” and so it was, in light of the success of the vaccination campaign and the low infection rates that have long remained stable. None of the ministry’s professional staff expressed comprehensive objections to lifting the restrictions. But for some of them, the decision is accompanied by some complicated headaches, and they believe it would have been better to lift the restrictions more gradually.
These headaches stem from a few fears: First, the worry that lifting all the limitations at once will give the public the feeling that the coronavirus has passed completely, while the virus still exists and continues to wreak havoc in many countries. They worry that this false sense of security could cause overseas travelers returning to Israel to ignore quarantine requirements and bring new COVID-19 strains into Israel.
This is why the Health Ministry’s announcement repeatedly emphasizes the importance of following the rules when traveling abroad and coming home. Just a few days ago, Israelis received a reminder that even vaccinated people are not 100 percent protected and that outbreaks can still occur, after 16 residents of a Ra’anana nursing home contracted COVID-19.
The decision to remove all coronavirus restrictions will likely have a very significant impact on the vaccination campaign planned for 12- to 16-year-olds, which is expected to start in the coming days. Until now, the vaccine passport program served as motivation for families to vaccinate their children so they could go to restaurants, hotels or movie theaters; now this incentive has disappeared.
This decision does have a plus side: Anyone who decides to vaccinate their children will do so out of purely personal medical considerations, and no one can claim that parents were forced to vaccinate their children by outside pressure. In any case, the number of children who will be vaccinated is expected to be smaller than if the “green passport” system was still in effect.
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The true test of the decision to lift coronavirus restrictions may only arrive in September or October, after the new school year begins and after many families return from vacations abroad. In any case, one thing is clear. Israel’s vaccination campaign, combined with the additional incentive of the green passport system, led to a critical mass of vaccinated people and the present situation of de-facto herd immunity, including the reopening of the Israeli economy.