Israel's COVID Cabinet to Vote on Extending Lockdown Without Exit Date

Despite nearly 20 percent of Israelis being vaccinated for coronavirus, the death toll is rising swiftly. Israel's Health Ministry is adamant that the restrictions should be renewed for at least another week

Ayalon Highway during the first lockdown, March 2020
Ayalon Highway during the first lockdown, March 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

The cabinet is set to vote on Sunday on extending the lockdown, potentially for another week, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planning to propose keeping Ben-Gurion International Airport and border crossings closed for another two weeks.

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin announced that parliament will vote on increasing fines for violating lockdown regulations, ending a political stalemate that had prevented extending a nationwide lockdown, which is set to expire on Sunday night.

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The irregular Knesset meeting, set for Sunday at 2 P.M., was announced after the Joint List agreed to revoke its opposition to holding the vote.

Israel is ending a third week of lockdown with the Health Ministry demanding to renew the restrictions for at least another week in light of a lack of improvement in numbers of seriously ill cases at the hospitals.

The continuing high patient volume is being attributed largely to the effect of new mutations of the coronavirus. But there’s still no evidence that the vaccines aren’t effective against these mutations, at least to some degree, and this appears to be Israel’s only hope.

The vaccination campaign is proceeding apace, with almost three million people having received at least one dose. Of these, 1.7 million have also received the second dose. But the death toll has been rising quickly, and it is anticipated that it will reach around 5,000 by next week, given that it already stands at 4,738 and there are close to 450 patients in critical condition.

Initial data from the health maintenance organizations and the ministry show the vaccines to be highly effective, but full data hasn’t yet been published. In a briefing over the weekend, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the director of public health services, said that out of 715,425 Israelis who received the second dose more than a week ago, only 317 have caught the virus, or 0.04 percent, and only 16 required hospitalization.

On Friday, 6,500 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed, which is less than the weekday average. In total, 75,000 tests were administered, and nine percent came back positive.

Despite the fact that vaccination rates among the vulnerable elderly are high – 82 percent among people aged 60 and up, 92 percent among people aged 70 to 79 and 86 percent among people 80 and older – the hospitals remain under intense pressure. The number of seriously ill patients has remained stubbornly steady at around 1,200. Of these, 434 are in critical condition.

Since the virus erupted last March, nearly 16,000 Israelis have been hospitalized. Of these, 2,800 have been hooked up to ventilators.

Last week, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that exiting the lockdown given this situation would be “irresponsible.” Even though the results of the lockdown to date haven’t been “what we dreamed of,” he said, without it, Israel’s situation would be even worse.

Beyond continuing the lockdown and speeding up the vaccination campaign as much as possible, however, the ministry has no solutions to offer. And it has yet to even set numerical targets for exiting the lockdown.

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz and other ministers from his party are conditioning their agreement to extending the lockdown on the existence of “an olderly plan” for easing the restrictions. Kahol Lavan ministers say that in light of numbers showing a decline in serious cases, it may be possible to suffice with an extension of the lockdown by only a few days.

Gantz said last week that he would not agree to extend the lockdown without a vote being held to increase fines for those violating restrictions. This demand led to the cabinet postponing the vote on extending the lockdown, which was originally expected to be held on Thursday.

The proposal coming up for a vote Sunday calls to increase the maximum fine for violating the coronavirus regulations from 5,000 shekels ($1,500) to 10,000 shekels and would also allow closure orders to be issued to institutions that violate the regulations, including schools.

On Friday it was announced that Israel would deliver 5,000 coronavirus vaccines for medical staff in the Palestinian territories, following a recommendation from the Defense Ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

The first batch is set to be delivered to the Palestinian Authority at the start of next week.

Meanwhile, a planned rescue flight of 170 Israeli citizens from Frankfurt to Israel, which was scheduled to take off on Sunday, has been postponed indefinitely.

Frankfurt International Airport is a hub for rescue flights to repatriate citizens to Israel, in flights operated by Israeli carrier Israir. All those allowed on board have been granted an exception to travel by the Health Ministry.

With reporting by Yaniv Kubovich and Rina Rosenberg.

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