JERUSALEM – Israel predicted a turnaround in the COVID-19 crisis could be weeks later than previously thought on Sunday as coronavirus variants offset its vaccination drive and a large funeral crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews defied a five-week-old national lockdown.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promoted a speedy vaccination of Israel’s most vulnerable cohorts – around 24% of 9 million citizens – and the lockdown as dual pathways to a possible reopening of the economy in February.
But a projected mid-January turnaround in curbing the pandemic did not transpire. Serious cases have surged among Israelis who have not yet been vaccinated. Officials blame this on communicable foreign virus strains and on lockdown scofflaws.
Violations by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are among the conservative Netanyahu’s supporters, have been played up by political rivals in questioning the lockdown’s efficacy – and building opposition to the premier ahead of a March 23 election.
On Sunday, thousands of ultra-Orthodox attended the Jerusalem funeral of a top rabbi. Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s centrist coalition partner, responded by pledging to oppose a proposed lockdown extension into the coming week.
The current lockdown expires on Sunday night.
“Either everyone is locked down, or everything is opened up for everyone. The days of chicanery are over,” Gantz tweeted.
The ultra-Orthodox, whose often high-density communities make up around 15% of Israel’s population, account for some 35% of recent contagions according to the Health Ministry.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said there would be “a few weeks’ delay” to the Israeli exit plan, and set a higher vaccination threshold for a turnaround.
“Our goal is to achieve 5.5 million (fully vaccinated citizens) and I reckon that the moment we cross the 3-to-3.5 million (mark) you will already see change,” he told Kan radio.
As of Saturday, 1.7 million Israelis had received the second dose of the Pfizer Inc. vaccine more than a week ago, achieving the maximum 95% protection, the Health Ministry said.
Around another 1.3 million had either received one dose and were awaiting the second or had received the second dose within the last week and so were not yet designated as fully vaccinated.