More masks and no kissing: Israel confronts coronavirus surge

Nearly 60 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19

Despite one of the world’s fastest vaccination drives, Israel is confronting a surge in coronavirus cases and opting to restrict daily life – and implore people to stop kissing.

“The public is called on to understand the situation and, therefore, to stop shaking hands, embracing and kissing,” read a government advisory published late on Wednesday.

Israel’s government has announced it would slowly reintroduce the mandate to wear face masks, which was dropped entirely in June.

From Sunday, masks must be back on for those attending outdoor events with more than 100 people. They are already required on public transport and other indoor spaces, though enforcement of the rules in recent weeks has been lax.

The latest rules come as Israel registers thousands of new coronavirus cases a day, coupled with a rise in deaths.

Health ministry data show 30 people have died from the disease in the past week, out of a population of nine million, compared with zero deaths over the same period a month ago.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has blamed the sharp rise in infections on the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant.

“We are seeing a great magnitude of infection around the world,” he said at the start of the Cabinet meeting on Sunday.

As a result, the government is trying to turn the tide on vaccination, which has slowed in recent weeks because nearly 60 per cent of the population has received two doses.

“We are in a race between the rate of immunisation and the rate of infection,” Mr Bennett said.

Israel has also tightened border controls, although no changes have been made with travel to the Palestinian territories.

Only eight per cent of Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank have received two vaccine doses, Palestinian health ministry data show. Israel has provided vaccines to Palestinians with Israeli work permits.

Mr Bennett’s government has, meanwhile, forged ahead with administering third doses in Israel to some adults.

The move has been followed by “a very big wave” of new vaccinations, according to Ido Hadari from healthcare provider Maccabi. About half of those eligible for the third shot registered within a matter of days, he said.

“The number of the positive cases and news about a fourth lockdown and new restrictions, etc, it brings back the sense of urgency and the fear of the disease,” the Maccabi spokesman said.

The number of seriously ill patients shot up from less than 30 a month ago to 235 on Wednesday, according to the health ministry.

The figure remains far lower than the peak of nearly 1,200 in January, when Israel was in its third nationwide lockdown.

Ami Neuberger, head of the coronavirus department at Rambam hospital, which serves northern Israel, said treatment is far easier now.

“The vaccinated people are becoming much better much faster. So, fewer need mechanical ventilation, intensive care,” he said.

Dr Neuberger, an infectious diseases specialist, said he broadly supports the government’s “balanced” approach.

“They are trying to do everything, falling short of a complete lockdown,” he said. “I would do the same.”

Updated: August 5th 2021, 11:43 AM