Israel extended a national lockdown on Sunday as coronavirus variants offset its vaccination drive and officials predicted a delay in a turnaround from the health and economic crisis.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attended the Jerusalem funerals of two prominent rabbis on Sunday, highlighting Israel’s challenges in enforcing restrictions and drawing criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition partners.
Netanyahu has promoted a speedy vaccination of Israel’s most vulnerable, around 24% of nine million citizens, as the best way to a quick reopening of the economy in February.
But a projected mid-January turnaround in curbing the pandemic did not happen.
Serious cases have surged among Israelis who have not yet been vaccinated. Officials blame this on super-communicable foreign virus strains and on lockdown flouters.
Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to extend the five-week-old national lockdown until Friday, pending parliamentary approval, Israeli media reported.
Violations by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are among Netanyahu’s supporters, have been played up by political rivals in questioning the lockdown’s efficacy – and building opposition to him ahead of a March 23 election.
“Either everyone is locked down, or everything is opened up for everyone. The days of chicanery are over,” Defence Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s centrist coalition partner and now election competitor, wrote on Twitter.
In an apparent defence of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Netanyahu said that lockdown violations had taken place among secular Israelis and the country’s Arab minority, as well.
“To concentrate on the violations of one group and ignore the violations of others… they must all stop. This is the time for unity,” Netanyahu said in a statement ahead of the cabinet vote.
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.
As of Saturday, 1.7 million Israelis had received their second dose of the Pfizer 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.