Prime Minister Naftali Bennett views the events of the past week in Europe as convincing proof in support of his approach to the coronavirus pandemic. The omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa a little over a month ago, has gone from being under-the-radar to record-breaking spread.
On Wednesday, Britain recorded the second highest daily number of new cases since the beginning of the pandemic: some 78,000 people. In some Western European countries that haven’t yet put the delta strain behind them, major surges in cases are being recorded. And the United States is also bracing for a cold, hard winter.
The vast majority of scientists are united in the view that omicron is far more infectious than the earlier variants. The question that remains unanswered, because not enough time has elapsed to come to an authoritative conclusion, is the extent to which it causes serious illness and death. The initial signs from South Africa are reassuring – fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths compared to delta at a similar stage of spread – but the evidence is not yet sufficiently certain. Nor is it clear yet whether the situation is due to the new variant being less lethal or whether it’s related to the general level of antibodies in the country (as a result of vaccinations or recovery from COVID-19).
In Israel, omicron has not yet sparked a conflagration. To date, more than 100 cases of the new strain have been detected. In addition, the total number of new coronavirus cases – mostly from the delta variant – has been going up by about 15 percent a week. The lag in the spread of the omicron strain in Israel is being attributed to steps that Bennett took based on the lessons of a nationwide exercise simulating the arrival of a new, highly infections strain of the virus. The drill was conducted just before the real thing arrived.
A series of measures – closing the country to non-citizens, along with mandatory quarantine and an additional coronavirus test for passengers arriving in Israel and the obstacles put in the path of Israelis seeking to go abroad – have so far contributed to a slowing of the spread of the new strain, and at least for the time being at a relatively low price to the economy. But the government failed in its attempt to present clear policy to the public and has been seen as waffling over unnecessary measures that were announced and then retracted (the reimposition of Shin Bet location tracking of citizens and compulsory.)
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The main weapon in the government’s arsenal against the omicron variant – vaccinations – served it well against delta in the fall. Delta was contained quickly in Israel thanks to the booster shot campaign, to which the public widely responded. Bennett hoped for a similar achievement following approval for vaccinating children from 5 to 11. In the meantime, however, he’s been facing a number of difficulties. As of the middle of this past week, only about 12 percent of the age group had been vaccinated. And on average, only about 7,000 Israelis a day are getting their first dose, a slow pace that which might not provide a sufficient level of vaccination against an omicron incursion.
The prime minister is deeply frustrated. Early identification of the threat was met by public indifference, and many interpreted the early measures he took as signs of hysteria.
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But more than anything, he’s facing difficulties within his own coalition government. The main obstacle is at the Education Ministry. Many in the coalition describe Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton (New Hope) as a full-fledged coronavirus denier (an allegation that she denies). With the government’s reliance on a flimsy base of 61 Knesset members – a bare majority, Bennett has no real room for maneuver. He’s forced to embrace his opponents in the coalition instead of reprimanding them. But the firing (or resignation) this past week of Education Ministry director general Yigal Slovik revealed the depth of the crisis.
In practice, the ministry sabotaged the effort to vaccinate the children.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is mainly counting on a media campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated. He’s gone head-to-head with Bennett over some of the prime minister’s recommendations (location tracking and restrictions at malls). In the meantime, the public has been hesitating. Conversations with parents of children in the relevant age group – parents who themselves have gotten a booster shot – suggest that many are on the fence in getting their younger children vaccinated, despite the experts’ admonitions.
This still isn’t a coordinated full frontal effort to get the country’s younger children vaccinated. Israel bought time by imposing travel restrictions but didn’t take full advantage of them as had been planned. Bennett believes that approval of the additional measures that he proposed, such as the compulsory bracelets in malls, would have kept unvaccinated families away from enclosed and crowded spaces and encouraged them to get vaccinated. But beyond giving in on the bracelets, he doesn’t intend to back off on the other restrictions. If anything, he thinks he’s been too soft.
In the weeks ahead, the prime minister intends to threaten the public less but at the same time apply much greater pressure on government authorities (the education and health ministries and the IDF’s Home Front Command) to improve the results in vaccinating the children. We’ll see whether he follows through.