Bennett backs expanding virus restrictions to health, education workers

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday backed limitations on entry to health and education institutions among other venues where the restrictions currently are in effect, his office said in a statement.

Applying the so-called Green Pass system to schools and hospitals means employees will only be granted entry to their workplaces if they have documentation showing they are vaccinated against COVID-19, have recovered from the virus, or have tested negative for the virus within the past 72 hours.

The expanded rules — which will be brought to the coronavirus cabinet later Monday for approval —  will also apply to workers in all places where customers are required to abide by the Green Pass system, the Prime Minister’s Office said in its statement.

Bennet huddled with top officials including the director generals of  the Health, Finance, Education, Interior Ministry, Transportation and Public Security ministries, as well as the national coronavirus project director and other officials involved in formulating virus policy, for a “comprehensive assessment regarding the fight against the coronavirus.”

The meeting also discussed preparations for the start of the school year on September 1, the preparedness of the health system, and progress in the vaccine campaign that is pushing third-dose booster shots for all Israelis 12 and over.

Bennett also approved a plan for holding the traditional selichot prayers at the Western Wall under COVID restrictions. The prayers, which are said in Jewish communities all over the world, are part of the services leading up to and during the High Holiday period. Usually, tens of thousands attend the Western Wall services.

Under the terms of the plan, no more than 8,000 worshipers will be permitted to attend the Western Wall prayers and they will need to be divided into capsules. Face masks will need to be worn at all times and the rules will be strictly enforced, the Prime Minister’s Office statement said.

Worshippers during selichot prayers at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City on September 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Current Health Ministry guidelines ban open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people for mass events like concerts, with celebrations capped at 500 people each. Last year attendance at the selichot prayers was also restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Both the Green Pass expansion and the selichot prayer plan will be brought for approval by ministers later in the day during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a select panel of ministers tasked with forming virus policy.

After reducing daily infections to barely more than a dozen a day in mid-June Israel has experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant that has pushed the daily caseload to thousands with 6,576 cases diagnosed on Sunday.

To curb the wave of infections the government has introduced restrictions on public gatherings, including enforcing the Green Pass.

By including education workers in the Green Pass system and restricting unvaccinated teachers’ access to schools, Bennett may be heading into a confrontation with teachers unions.

There is already a standoff brewing as the Education Ministry intends to require all unvaccinated teachers to pay out of pocket for virus tests every two or three days if they want to continue working and has indicated that those that don’t could be put on unpaid leave.

Ran Erez, chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association, has threatened to petition the High Court against such a move.

In the meantime, the Education Ministry has ordered regional administrators to compile lists of teachers who are not vaccinated in order to prepare for the possible need of backup staff to replace them, Channel 13 reported Sunday.

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