Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that Israel can beat the delta variant of the coronavirus within five weeks, appealing to Israelis' sense of personal responsibility to adhere to government guidelines and blaming his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
Though cases were surging in Israel, reaching another four-month peak in daily infections on Tuesday, Bennett said in a press conference that his government seeks to avoid the mass lockdowns that characterized the country's handling of the three previous coronavirus outbreaks. Instead, Israel will opt for a policy revolving around promoting mask wearing, expanding vaccinations and encouraging social distancing.
"We have two options: the first option is to remain indifferent, say that it's the government's problem and then cases will spike and we'll have to instate a lockdown; the other option is that each of us takes responsibility and then we can end this whole business in five weeks," Bennett said.
Bennett insisted on the efficacy of masks in lowering infection rates, and said that police were instructed to enforce mask wearing indoors and to hand out fines to violators. He also urged unvaccinated Israelis – 1.5 million people, including 300,000 teenagers, according to the prime minister – to get vaccinated. Lastly, Bennett implored the public to avoid mass gatherings and to follow social distancing protocols. "This means no more hand shaking. You can do it with an elbow," he said, demonstrating an elbow bump with an aide.
Bennett also accused the Netanyahu government of letting Israelis fly in and out of the country unimpeded, even to international coronavirus hotspots, bringing back variants of the virus that then spread in Israel. "This was grave neglect that lasted for a year and a half; truly the Yom Kippur of the coronavirus," Bennett said, in reference to the Israeli mishandling of the lead-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Netanyahu's Likud party said in response: "Bennett held a press conference in order to announce that he has no decisions or guidelines while the coronavirus is back in Israel on his watch. No false excuse by Bennett will explain how he let the coronavirus back into Israel after he was handed a country in the best shape in the world by Netanyahu."
Bennett's statement came as Israel reached another four-month peak in daily coronavirus infections, with 754 cases reported by the Health Ministry on Tuesday. The serious cases also climbed by eight to 53, but still remain low.
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Over the past month, new daily cases spiked by 3000 percent, from a daily moving average of 15 to around 500. Over the same period, serious cases have risen by 150 percent, from 20 active serious cases to 53.
As of Wednesday, Israel has 5,172 active COVID-19 cases. Since the pandemic struck Israel, the total death toll from coronavirus stands at 6,440.
The surge in cases is attributed to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is twice as contagious as the original variant of COVID-19 and has become the dominant strain of the virus in Israel.
Last week, a vaccinated passenger who arrived in Israel from abroad was diagnosed with the country's first case of a new coronavirus variant known as delta plus. The delta plus variant is very similar to the more widespread delta variant, and it is still not clear if it's more contagious or dangerous than the delta variant.
Still, Israel's Health authorities were mostly unfazed by the hike in cases, which comes at a time when most of the population is vaccinated and serious cases remain relatively low. In line with Health Ministry recommendations, Israel's coronavirus cabinet was aiming at softening pandemic restrictions while, at the same time, bolstering quarantine enforcement and stopping the spread of the virus at Israel's points of entry.
On Monday, the Health Ministry doubled the number of testing sites at the Ben-Gurion International Airport, ahead of the expected influx of incoming flights in the summer; the Health Ministry also instituted fines for Israelis who fly to countries on the coronavirus no-fly list.