Health Ministry: No discussions had been held with experts about lifting virus restrictions

    Members of the Health Ministry’s national forum for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak said Monday that no discussions had been held with experts ahead of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein’s announcement that almost all remaining virus restrictions will be lifted at the beginning of next month.

    According to the Kan public broadcaster, one unnamed member of the forum expressed great surprise at the decision and raised questions as to the motives behind it.

    Others told the outlet that they had only heard about the decision from news reports and suspected there were political motives behind the move.

    However, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Kan on Monday that there was nothing untoward about the development and said the Health Ministry’s leadership had decided to take the step.

    MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

    “This decision was made by all the top officials of the Health Ministry, including coronavirus czar (Nachman) Ash,”. Kisch said that a month ago, following a review with unnamed experts, it was decided that if virus infection rates remained low, restrictions would be eased.

    The decision at the time, he explained, was taken discreetly in order to not raise public expectations that might then be unfulfilled if there were any setbacks.

    On Sunday, Edelstein said that from June 1 the ministry will lift the remaining coronavirus restrictions on gatherings, and will no longer limit entry to certain venues only to the vaccinated, following the near-vanquishing of COVID-19 in the country as a result of its successful vaccine drive.

    The so-called Purple Badge and Green Pass systems will be scrapped, meaning that Israelis will no longer require proof of vaccination or recovery to enter various venues, and capacity limits at stores, restaurants and other sites will be lifted. There will be no further caps on gatherings, indoors or outdoors.

    People swim at the Gordon Pool, by the beach in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2021, after it was opened for people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 (Flash90)

    Only the wearing of facemasks indoors and travel restrictions will remain in place for the time being, Edelstein said.

    But earlier this month the Health Ministry had announced that it was extending the Green Pass system through 2021, and attributed the decision to Edelstein himself.

    Also, at the end of April, a meeting of national health experts about the virus ended with a consensus among participants that “at this stage the Green Badge policy should be continued even as the infection rate diminishes” according to minutes from the meeting published at the time by Ran Balicer, an executive from the Clalit health management organization who was at the meeting. also present were Ash and the head of public health at the Health Ministry, Sharon Alroy-Preis.

    Balicer tweeted Sunday that the decision to end the restrictions was “a leap of faith in view of (still unfolding) events in the UK and other well-vaccinated countries.”

    The United Kingdom is currently facing a surge in infections of the Indian variant of the coronavirus, despite a relatively high national vaccination rate.

    File: Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein at a press conference in Jerusalem, on February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

    Edelstein said Sunday that the return to normal comes with a caveat. “The Health Ministry is working to continue the low morbidity and will continue to comprehensively observe the situation to prevent an outbreak. Of course, if there is an outbreak, we will have to go back” to upholding the restrictions, he said.

    Edelstein urged Israelis not to travel to countries with high morbidity rates, and to stick to distancing rules when abroad.

    Israel has made dramatic gains in stamping out the virus through its vaccination campaign, driving down the number of daily cases (based on a weekly average), from 8,600 at the peak of the health crisis to just 27 this week. At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases; as of Monday morning, there were 500 active infections and 59 people in serious condition.

    According to the ministry, over 5.1 million Israelis received both doses of the vaccine and 92% of Israelis over 50 are fully vaccinated.

    The morbidity rates in the country have remained low, despite the reopening of most of the economy and of the school system.

    Israel is gearing up to begin vaccinations of children ages 12-15, who currently don’t qualify to get the shots.

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