Netanyahu: Lockdown exit will be gradual, in line with expert plan

Ahead of a partial lifting of lockdown restrictions on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the imposition of the nationwide closure a month ago to curb sky-high coronavirus infection rates and said Israel would emerge gradually this time.

“We will exit [the lockdown] carefully this time, in line with the plan set out by the experts at the health ministry,” Netanyahu told reporters during a televised briefing on Saturday evening.

“If everyone follows the rules, I am sure that it will work,” the prime minister added.

The easing of some of the rules, in force since September 18 as part of a second lockdown in six months against the pandemic, had been approved on Thursday by Netanyahu’s government, contingent on new cases being no higher than 2,000 per day.

On Friday, 1,469 people were diagnosed on Friday out of a total of 34,640 tests performed over the course of the day, a positive rate of 4.2 percent. This number is down from around 8,000-9,000 per day at the end of September.

“The decision to impose a national lockdown was correct, I am happy that I insisted on it. The lockdown worked,” Netanyahu said. The premier and his government had faced harsh criticism for mishandling the health crisis in Israel, including by lifting restrictions too early after the first lockdown in March and April.

The lifting of restrictions this time around is scheduled to take place in several phases, through to February 2021.

In the first phase starting Sunday, ministers agreed to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); reopen preschools and daycares; allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.

The preschools and daycares for children aged 0-6 will also reopen in virus hotspots, also known as red zones, currently mainly ultra-Orthodox areas where infections remain high. But most lockdown restrictions will remain in place in these areas until at least midnight Wednesday, according to authorities. These areas include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.

Netanyahu on Saturday called on ultra-Orthodox Jews to follow the virus rules, after a prominent leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered a Haredi school system for boys older than six to reopen on Sunday despite this continuing to be prohibited.

Netanyahu called on the ultra-Orthodox community to “not do this” and to adhere to the measures put in place.

“I ask the Haredi community not to do this,” the premier said, “[I ask] the leaders not to do this. Not to violate the rules. The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life.”

Netanyahu said Israeli authorities would enforce the restrictions as much as possible. “We will employ legal means in accordance with our abilities,” said the PM, adding that there was a limited number of officers and inspectors and they “cannot be deployed on every street.”

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