State comptroller criticizes Netanyahu’s gov. for COVID management

Cecilia Nysing

Delays in decisions and unwillingness to listen to experts during the first three waves of the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the situation in Israel, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said in a report released Tuesday.

Among the issues the document brought to light was the lack of a strategy to exit the lockdown after the first wave, that the coronavirus cabinet was not convened for a full month between July and August 2020 as morbidity was climbing and the unwillingness of the government to listen to health officials’ requests, which impaired their ability to fight the pandemic effectively.

For example, this happened by allowing tens of thousands of Israelis to travel and return to the country without getting tested, the report said.

EMPTY JAFFA Street in Jerusalem, during the nationwide lockdown last Rosh Hashanah. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“The government did examine whether the conditions required to exit from the lockdowns as defined in the National Security Council program actually were in place,” the report said, referring to the first lockdown. “The outline approved by the government to exit the closure did not maintain two-week gaps before each new step was implemented, contrary to the experts’ recommendation.”

It took the government four months to appoint a coronavirus commissioner, and when the commissioner was appointed, he was not given clear powers, the report said.

In addition, it took nine months to task Home Front Command with the responsibility of epidemiological investigations to break the chains of infection. Before that, the attempt by the Health Ministry to set up a system was deemed a failure.

As the morbidity rate was rising in summer 2020, the government delayed approving the Coronavirus Traffic Light System proposed by the Health Ministry, which compromised the ability of health officials to effectively work to reduce morbidity, the report said. As a result, last September, Israel found itself in lockdown for the second time.

The failure to effectively coordinate between central and local authorities also had negative consequences, especially in cities that became hot spots of infections, including Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. The national authorities had failed to promptly pass on information about those infected to the local authorities to allow them to assist verified patients and their families with necessities, the report said.

In the following period, the airport became one of the weakest points in the country’s efforts to contain the disease. However, in spite of the recommendations of health officials, travel was not further restricted, and for many months, inbound passengers were not required to get tested.

An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport (credit: REUTERS)An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport (credit: REUTERS)

The COMPTROLLER also found that other decisions turned out to be rushed and lacked proper overview.

For example, Israel purchased thousands of respirators at the beginning of the pandemic, but they proved to be useless because there were never more than a few hundred intubated patients at the same time. The decision was made by Netanyahu in discussions with selected officials, but it was never brought to the full government, the report said.

Several problems were uncovered in the way the authorities related to the public and disseminated information about the pandemic.

The Health Ministry had not updated its communication infrastructure since 2007, causing it to find itself awfully unprepared to inform the public or to refute the dissemination of “fake” news about the disease or the vaccines.

For example, some 72% of phone calls to the Health Ministry’s dedicated hotline did not receive any response. In addition, the ministry and Home Front Command developed two completely separate information systems to offer explanations to the public, with no coordination, including two websites that offered overlapping information. The websites cost NIS 11.5 million and NIS 4.1m., respectively.

Furthermore, activities to reach and offer explanations about the disease and the regulations to the Arab and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sectors started late, compared with those directed to the general population.

The state comptroller also criticized the government’s response to the pandemic within the education system. Children had to stay at home for some 188 days, which was longer than almost any other country; for about half of that time, no form of educational activity was offered, the report said.

In addition, approximately half of the teachers said they had not received any training in how to improve their skills for online teaching. The authorities also failed to communicate clear guidelines, such as clarifying when it was possible to demand that a student turn on their camera.

The report highlighted poor conditions in the healthcare system during the pandemic, with a chronic lack of manpower and beds.

“The audit found out that despite the Israeli government’s rapid understanding of the outbreak of coronavirus in the world, the risks involved and the need to take action to reduce the danger, deficiencies were found in decision-making processes and implementation during the period of the 34th government, in forming the coronavirus cabinet and in the decision-making processes of the 35th government, in the activities of the government and cabinet during the period of the second wave, in the operational capability of the Health Ministry to deal with the crisis, and in the work of the National Security Council in assisting the government in managing the crisis,” Englman wrote.

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