Israeli Officials Warn of Full Lockdown if Coronavirus Infection Rate Doesn't Slow

Uncertainty dominates inter-institutional meetings about the coronavirus crisis; officials hope behavioral adaptation can spare the public a complete lockdown

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
A bus in Tel Aviv with no access or exit from the front door in order to protect the driver from potential contagion by passengers, Marh 15, 2020.
A bus in Tel Aviv with no access or exit from the front door in order to protect the driver from potential contagion by passengers, Marh 15, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Israeli authorities will consider imposing a full lockdown on the country's citizens if the rate of coronavirus infection continues to rise over the next 48 hours, officials familiar with debates in the special Knesset committee dealing with the epidemic told Haaretz on Thursday. The number of patients in serious condition will also be considered in making the decision.

National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat has issued instructions to complete preparations for the lockdown, so it can be enacted at a moment's notice.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

The rate at which the number of new patients increases over the next two days will show whether the policy of gradually restricting Israelis' movements since the holiday of Purim in early March had the desired effect - or whether regulations should be made even stricter, the officials said.

In a coronavirus televised update on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that “unless we see an immediate improvement there will be no escape from a full lockdown.”

The National Security Council, which is in charge of coordinating the coronavirus response, hopes to see a slowdown in the infection rate, showing the social distancing approach has worked. The Finance Ministry is firmly opposed to imposing additional restrictions, for fear of an even more fatal blow to the economy.

The Council needs to juggle a complex set of related priorities, and has adopted a three-pronged approach. Firstly, it focuses on 'flattening the curve' to prevent the disease contraction rate from escalating, overwhelming hospitals. This is to ensure Israel doesn’t lose control and find itself in a situation similar to Italy’s. Secondly, it is attempting to allow the economy to continue functioning, in both public and private sectors. And thirdly, it works to increase the supply of products necessary to treat the crisis such as ventilators and test kits.

Officials describe “intense” worldwide competition for every product, and security agencies like the Mossad have been called on to help with purchases from states with which Israel may not have diplomatic relations.

The routine shows the extent to which the National Security Council, which normally advises the executive on diplomatic and security affairs, has become battle headquarters in what Netanyahu called a war on "an invisible enemy."

Israeli officers enforce Health Ministry regulations at Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhood "Mea She'arim" on March 26, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Every morning, every agency sends the council an update, which helps it to formulate recommendations and policies for that day. Only a part of this information is released to the public; then the cabinet assembles by video link, and, in a confidential meeting that can last for hours, approve continued measures and new regulations. Some of these are drip-fed to the media.

The main goal is to shorten the decision-making process, and make overall policy clear to all the relevant agencies. And although there is recent evidence of tensions between the Health and Defense Ministries over the handling of the crisis, this is not apparent during meetings, according to sources present.

The pace of decision-making resembles wartime, sources said: These meetings are meant to provide a platform to all opinions, so as not to be trapped in one way of looking at the problem. “It would be good if as many opinions were heard when debating security matters as well,” they commented.

"All scenarios have been presented, at least ten models, but it’s difficult to pick just one," they described. "The cost of mistakes is only revealed after 14 days. Thus, the gravest scenario is always chosen.”

But on the Israeli street, the way decisions are presented has been criticized. The public is confused by the flood of sometimes contradictory regulations and information, despite a massive government communications effort. At its helm, Pini Yitzhaki, who meets with government officials in order to coordinate what messages should be delivered.

The Government Advertising Agency has already spent millions of shekels on 10 information campaigns on the coronavirus crisis. Television audiences might have wondered why the same people are interviewed on all networks - it's no coincidence. The Prime Minister's Office coordinates the appearances of experts and senior officials in TV studios.

A man in Ashdod, southern Israel, March 25, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Most staff members at the spokespersons' office for specific languages or communities – Arabic, Russian and Yiddish – have been commandeered to handle the coronavirus outbreak. Still, the manpower is too slim to handle the pace at which events are unraveling. A campaign costing several millions could become irrelevant in a moment.

At the end of the day, uncertainty rules and everyone is in the dark, even if some more than others, as we all head deeper into coronavirus country. For many involved, the hope is now that "the public will understand the 'why' – even if it's not always certain as to the 'how.'"

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