As covid runs out of control, Israel’s lockdown prolonged to Jan. 31

The coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday, Jan. 19, approved in a rare consensus the extension of the strict two-week lockdown expiring on Thursday for another 10 days up until Jan. 31 at midnight. The ministers also ordered all travelers bound for Israel to be armed with covid negative tests taken 72 hours before boarding a flight.

Ministers from Kahol Lavan and the ultra-religious parties, who fiercely opposed previous lockdown measures, abandoned their arguments this time in view of the appalling new infection figures: 10,031 new cases registered on Monday, 10.4pc positive tests, 1,147 seriously ill patients in hospital with nearly 300 on ventilators and a death toll of 4,080 and rising daily.

Closures of the past 10 days have covered all retail trade, the entire education system, restaurants, gyms, resorts and free movement beyond 1,000m outside the home, the only exceptions being essential purchases and holders of essential jobs. Vaccinations broke their own world records to reach more than 2,216,000 Israelis, 480,000 receiving their second shots this week when people of 40 plus were included for the first.

Concerns are now focusing on two large groups. The ultra-religious communities, which accounted for a disproportionate 40pc of the new cases recorded on Monday. Health officials report that the UK variant of the covid virus is already rife in most parts of the country, but especially among the ultra-religious groups. While many of them abide by health guidelines, some of their rabbis insist on uninterrupted Torah studies at their schools and seminaries. Police, who find closing down these schools an impossible task, forcibly broke up a crowded wedding party in Bnei Brak on Tuesday.

The second group came into unexpected fore when 10 pregnant women contracted coronavirus and were admitted to hospital in serious condition. They were not vaccinated against the virus, because their youth placed them low on the priority chart. And the vaccine manufacturers had never included pregnant women in their trials. The Health Ministry reacted by urging all women who were pregnant or lactating to nonetheless get themselves immunized without delay, since the vaccine seemed to be comparatively harmless compared with the deadly virus.

The ministry’s director of public health, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said that there are no signs that the UK variant is resistant to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine used in Israel’s drive. Some experts are predicting that many more variants are out there waiting their turn. Mandating tests for arrivals at this late date, they say, may be locking the barn door after the horse (the UK and South African strains) has bolted.

In general, the ministers were warned by health experts that neither Israel’s lockdown measures nor its dynamic vaccination campaign had so far proved able to curtail the wildly surging covid infection, although it may be too soon to determine their impact. The national exit plan optimistically drafted last week by the Health Ministry has been tucked into a drawer. No one is venturing to forecast how or when the pandemic will lift its paralyzing grip.

The date to watch now is Jan. 31. By then, data may present itself for evaluating the effectiveness of the agonizing closures and the massive vaccination drive and a signal for deciding where to go next.

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