Coronavirus: Country to fully reopen by April, Netanyahu says

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Israel’s goal is to completely reopen the country by April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.

As part of measures to speed up a hoped-for return to normality, a pilot project has been agreed to offer returnees from abroad who must enter quarantine the option to wear an electronic bracelet. The Knesset also approved legislation to allow the Health Ministry to provide information to local authorities, if they demand it, about individuals who have not been vaccinated.

At a press conference with the country’s top Health Ministry’s officials and the heads of the health funds and Magen David Adom, Netanyahu stressed that while some 5 million Israelis have either received at least their first shot or recovered from the virus, there are still about 1.2 million individuals aged over 16 who have not been vaccinated.

“Why do we have such a gap? There are many reasons, but mostly because of fake news,” the prime minister said, adding that the goal is to close that gap by the end of March.

Netanyahu presented a five-step plan to resume normal life. The first phase was described by the prime minister as the current one. Next week, more schoolchildren are expected to return to in-person learning, while the following week, the green passport program will be expanded.

Several times during the press conference, Netanyahu called on the public who have not been vaccinated to go and get their shots, emphasizing that Israel is the only country in the world that does not lack vaccines.

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Looking to the future, he added that he has been in conversation not only with Pfizer and Moderna, two major vaccine producers, to build vaccine factories in Israel, but also with six other nations, including Austria and Denmark, to build joint facilities.

The vaccination campaign is scheduled to be completed in the last week of March and this should allow the country’s full reopening in April.

Earlier in the day, the Knesset approved a bill allowing information about people eligible to be inoculated but who have not done so – including names, ID numbers, phone numbers and addresses – to be transmitted by the Health Ministry to municipalities and Education and Welfare ministries.

According to the legislation, the records will be passed on to the authorities only subject to an active request, and the presentation of a plan to encourage immunization among the population included in the database. Actively encouraging individuals to get inoculated will be the only permitted use of the material. Moreover, the information must be deleted within 60 days.

The law was harshly criticized by both opposition MKs and human rights organizations as a violation of individual privacy.

“The approved law represents a serious and fatal violation of the right to privacy, without sufficient medical justification and without exhausting the other means, which are less harmful to the rights of the individual, to encourage immunization and persuade the public,” said Einat Ovadia, director of the Zulat Institute for Equality and Human Rights.

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Also on Wednesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Knesset Law Committee chairman Yakov Asher agreed to start a pilot project offering returnees from abroad to quarantine at home while wearing an electronic bracelet instead of having to isolate in a hotel.
The issue has for days been at the center of a controversy.

The mandatory isolation in hotels had been in place for weeks and was expected to be extended by the committee on Sunday, when Asher announced that he would not support it and insisted that the government provide some alternatives. He was quickly followed by the majority of his fellow MKs. In the end, they decided to extend the mandatory isolation by only 24 hours.

In response, the government reduced the number of Israelis allowed back every day from the current 2,000 to 200, as long as the mandatory isolation was not reinstated, or another system was set in place.

The authorities started to examine the possibility to offer those who enter the country the choice to wear an electronic bracelet and to quarantine at home. However, the measure presents several legal issues and might require enacting legislation.

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Edelstein and Asher believe that the pilot can start to be implemented without requiring full parliamentary approval. In the meantime, the committee okayed mandatory quarantine in hotels until March 5.

Committee members also highlighted the need for the government to propose a specific set of criteria for eligibility to receive an approval for traveling.

At the moment, the special committee set up for this purpose operates on a case-by-case basis based on humanitarian considerations.

Meanwhile, the R rate, which measures the ability of the disease to spread, rose for the second day in a row, reaching 0.9, after a few days during which it had remained below 0.8, indicating that the infections were receding.

Moreover, some 4,395 cases were reported on Tuesday, with 6.1% of the 74,461 tests performed returning a positive result. Some 795 patients were in serious condition, and the death toll stood at 5,648.

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