Israel on Cusp of Plan for Exiting Coronavirus Lockdown

Officials still debating fine points of plan slated to go to coronavirus cabinet next week

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Police patrol and enforce coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem, October 4, 2020.
Police patrol and enforce coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem, October 4, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There’s a new term over which the war over how to exit the pandemic lockdown is being waged: Phase Zero, in other words the phase before Phase One. Ahead of a decision on it that will be made Sunday or Monday, Phase Zero is attracting all the attention because it is the only one that will be determined by the cabinet without any reference to disease data.

If a decision is made next week, Phase Zero could go into effect October 18 or 25. The movement to all the following phases of the exit, of which there could be as few as five or as many as 10, will hinge on number targets, therefore their timing can’t be known in advance.

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Here’s the good news: For the first time since the start of the crisis, Israel not only has an exit strategy for the lockdown, but an exit strategy agreed upon by all relevant officials. The finance and health ministries, the National Security Council, coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu and a team of top academics got together and agreed on it. It’s now due to go to the coronavirus cabinet for approval.

Here’s the bad news: Until the illness rate declines, there will be no relief from lockdown apart from Phase Zero, if approved. Thus, any real easing of restriction is unlikely for at least 10 days at best and six weeks at worst, according to experts.

In any case, the road to the last of the five-10 stages, when Israel will return to the relatively mild restrictions of the summer (everything open, but occupancy in restaurants and at events limited), will likely remain blocked until the first half of December at the earliest.

The numbers that will be used to determine each of the phases, as well as the decision over whether there will in fact be a Phase Zero, are still being debated. But on the overall strategy, there is already an agreement: Each phase of the exit will depend on illness targets being met.

The two main numbers are the R (a measure of how rapidly the virus is spreading) and the N (the number of verified cases). To these two will be added numbers that will indicate whether Israel is heading in the right direction and help the authorities navigate an exit from lockdown. They include the number of daily coronavirus tests (the goal is 30,000) and the rate of positive results (under 5%). There’s also the A index, the percentage of new severe COVID-19 cases for a given period and the number of confirmed cases the week before (over 3% is a red flag) and a forecast for the number of new severe cases over the next 10 days.

Everyone is on board regarding the use of these indicators, but there is still no agreement on what each number needs to be before Israel can proceed to the next phase. The Health Ministry and Gamzu reportedly want the number of new daily confirmed cases to fall below 2,000 for the Phase One to go into effect and an R of less than 1.

Right now the number of daily new cases is two or three times 2,000, so it is clear the first relief from the lockdown is some way away. The optimistic scenario is that Israel can reach the target in about two weeks; the pessimistic forecast is not for another six weeks.

This explains the war over Phase Zero. The Finance Ministry and many cabinet ministers are demanding an early date for allowing businesses whose premises aren’t open to the public to reopen and for school to resume for children up to age 6. But Gamzu and many health experts are opposed.

These two categories of activity are not regarded as present an epidemiological risk. The treasury holds that these businesses should never have been included in the lockdown to begin with and should be exempted from without any connection to illness rates.

Health officials are reportedly opposed to Phase Zero mainly out of concern that any easing of restrictions not connected with an improvement in coronavirus figures will cause the government to lose control of the pandemic.

The debate will come to the coronavirus cabinet next week. If it adopts the treasury’s stand, designated businesses and school for the youngest will resume October 18 or 25. If ministers decide against it, the wait for the first relief could take as long as six weeks.

After that, the other phases will hinge on Israel’s progress on the various indicators – subject to a two-week waiting period to assess the impact of each easing measure before moving on to the next one.

The next step after opening designated business and schools for the youngest, as well as some relief from rules on movement, will reportedly be to reopen schools for first-eighth grade or businesses that adhere to the “purple badge” rules on social distancing. The decision will rest of which is likely to have a bigger positive economic impact.

The next phase will focus on businesses with higher risk, such as fitness clubs, and the resumption of in-person school for the ninth through the 12th grade. A decision on reopening Ben-Gurion International Airport will also be taken then.

The most risk-laden activities – eating at restaurants, public events and anything involving large crowds – will wait until the final stage. That will likely occur, according to the estimates, only in another two and a half months at the earliest. By then, officials will have to take into account the impact of winter weather and the seasonal influenza, and the final stage may have to be delayed.

A final problem is the big differences in contagion rates among various communities, particularly Haredi communities. Gamzu and Health Ministry officials hinted to Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting this week that Israel should undertake a differentiation policy. The prime minister rejected the idea out of hand.

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