State Watchdog Slams Netanyahu Gov't Handling of COVID Crisis

Report criticizes decision-making by Netanyahu that bypassed coronavirus cabinet, haphazard planning and failure to create a special body to deal with the pandemic

NetanyahuCredit: Abir Sultan / POOL/ REUTERS

The government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been ridden with failures, according to a report by the state comptroller that was published on Tuesday.

According to the report issued by State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, officials acted without authority, and specialized bodies were not established to deal with the pandemic. Additionally, many meetings by the coronavirus cabinet ended without any decisions being made, despite rising infection rates.

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Most of the failures described in the report have now been confirmed after being reported on in the media. For example, Englman notes former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s centralized decision-making process, which saw him make decisions without them being discussed in the ministerial COVID-19 cabinet. One example of this behavior, according to the report, was Netanyahu’s decision to purchase 7,000 ventilators in March 2020. This action was only approved by the cabinet a month later, after the purchasing process had already begun.

The report also states that in July 2020, between Israel’s first and second waves of the pandemic, the cabinet didn’t meet to discuss methods of reducing infection rates, despite a rise in the number of patients in serious condition. The following month, the cabinet met five times before approving the so-called traffic light plan, yet only approved it on August 30. The plan was never fully implemented.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the first official given the role of coronavirus czar, was never given an official letter of appointment, and the scope of his authority was never precisely defined, the report states. Likewise, between March and May 2020 the command center for the pandemic worked without its authority being spelled out, Englman writes, adding that work was plagued by lack of trust between the Health Ministry, hospitals, and health maintenance organizations. Furthermore, the Health Ministry found it difficult to purchase the equipment necessary for handling the outbreak, according to the report.

The report also stated that no special body was set up whose job was to carry out the decisions made by the political leadership. This led to the National Security Council being required to conduct COVID-related operations.

The document also criticizes government decisions to reduce restrictions despite the benchmarks for doing so having not been met, such as the establishment of a contact-tracing mechanism. Other criticisms include the establishment of a contract-tracing system only months after the beginning of the crisis, as well as major deviations from the framework for exiting the second lockdown last year.

In a section devoted to the question of caregiving, the report cites a severe shortage of personnel in nursing homes and other facilities. Even though a cabinet decision was made in July 2020 to bring additional workers to Israel, they have yet to arrive. Estimates from the health and social services ministries describe a shortage of some 2,500 caregivers. Another criticism in the report is the failure of the Health Ministry to reinforce caregiving staff in nursing homes during the pandemic. As reported in Haaretz, the plan was shelved after the heads of the institutions involved complained about the quality of the workers provided.

Englman also writes that the Social Services Ministry and the Social Equality Ministry did not meet the goals they set for identifying the needs of older adults and gathering centralized data on them. The Social Services Ministry surveyed only about 30 percent of the 1 million older Israelis, and the Social Equality Ministry 34 percent. These ministries did not follow up on the local governments that they supplied the data to, the report asserts. There isn’t a government organization in Israel that coordinates all up-to-date information on older people, such as their identities and how to contact them, states the report.

The report also levels criticism at the National Insurance Institute and the Employment Service for not doing more to ensure workers stayed employed, choosing instead to put them on unpaid leave and give them unemployment benefits.

A statement on the report from the Likud party, whose chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu, was prime minister during the first three waves of the pandemic, said it would read the report, while saying that Netanyahu made Israel the first country in the world to exit the crisis thanks to the vaccines he purchased this year. Likud also gave credit to Netanyahu for the ongoing booster shot campaign, saying that vaccine doses he had preordered had made it possible.

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