Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: YOAV DUDKEVITCH/REUTERS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: YOAV DUDKEVITCH/REUTERS

Tel Aviv — Israel’s cabinet voted to impose a second nationwide lockdown starting on Friday to try to tamp down a raging coronavirus outbreak, brushing aside appeals from both a business world warning of economic strangulation, and the powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Ministers voted on Sunday to strictly limit movement, gatherings and economic activity for at least three weeks coinciding with a major Jewish holiday season. At the end of that period, a decision will be made whether to proceed to applying selective restrictions to communities with higher rates of infection.

Health experts “raised a red flag”, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose emergency coalition government was formed in May expressly to tackle the health emergency. “Senior health ministry officials warned us that the morbidity situation requires immediate steps.”

If the Israeli public viewed the original lockdown in March as a health imperative, then the coming one is seen as the consequence of a government fiasco. An abandonment of caution after restrictions were eased, together with government inaction as cases climbed, have sent infections surging ninefold and deaths quadrupling since late May. Nearly one-fifth of the labour force remains out of work even though most of the economy has been open for months.

The finance ministry  estimated the new restrictions will cost the economy 19-billion shekels ($5.5bn), and a relief programme is to be presented by Thursday. The timing is fraught, and threats of non-compliance abound.

The restrictions are to take effect on the eve of the Jewish New Year, and the stringent restrictions will continue throughout a three-week season of major Jewish holidays, to the outrage of many ultra-Orthodox. Retail and leisure industries that had geared up for the holiday season will be hit hard.

Some businesspeople still trying to recover from the first lockdown say they will be forced to close unless the government offers immediate and substantial relief. Some are threatening to keep their stores, hotels and health clubs open, and joined the mass protests against Netanyahu that have been fuelled by the health crisis.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox are also expected to defy the lockdown, gathering for mass holiday prayers in overcrowded conditions, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

Other Israelis say they won’t abide by the new orders because the government has politicised its health decisions. Last week, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who said their communities were being demonised, it retreated from a decision to quarantine areas with big outbreaks.

Police are monitoring social networks for calls to violate the lockdown, Haaretz reported on Monday.

Cases began surging after the reopening of schools in May, and Netanyahu began warning in late June of another possible lockdown. Large gatherings have fostered the virus’s spread, now centred mainly in ultra-Orthodox and Arab areas of the country.

Bloomberg

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