Bolstered by high rates of vaccination and a gradual decline in fresh infections, the countries were planning to remove strict Covid restrictions and allow mass gatherings, in the earliest signs of the “post-Covid” era.
Then came the more infectious Delta variant, spoiling the efforts to return to the pre-pandemic days.
‘Learn to live with Covid’
A recent surge in cases fueled by the Delta variant has forced Israel to rollback the exemptions on wearing face masks and practicing social distancing in public.
Under what PM Naftali Bennett calls a policy of “soft suppression”, the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – involving the fewest possible restrictions and avoiding a fourth national lockdown that could do further harm to the economy.
As most Israelis in risk groups have now been vaccinated against Covid-19, Bennett is counting on fewer people than before falling seriously ill when infections rise.
“Implementing the strategy will entail taking certain risks but in the overall consideration, including economic factors, this is the necessary balance,” Bennett said last week.
The main indicator guiding the move is the number of severe Covid-19 cases in hospital, currently around 45. Implementation will entail monitoring infections, encouraging vaccinations, rapid testing and information campaigns about face masks.
The curbs that have been reinstated include the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors and quarantine for all people arriving in Israel.
Bennett’s strategy has been questioned by some scientists.
Israel’s health ministry advocates more of a push for stemming infections, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at Israel’s Health Ministry, told Kan Radio on Sunday.
“It’s possible that there won’t be a big rise in the severely ill but the price of making such a mistake is what’s worrying us,” she said.
But many other scientists are supportive.
“I am very much in favour of Israel’s approach,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, describing it as a “golden path” between Britain’s easing of restrictions and countries such as Australia that take a tougher line.
Virus ‘won’t stop’
Israel’s last lockdown was enforced in December, about a week after the start of what has been one of the world’s fastest vaccination programmes.
New daily Covid-19 infections are running at about 450. The Delta variant, first identified in India, now makes up about 90% of cases.
“We estimate that we won’t reach high waves of severe cases like in previous waves,” the health ministry’s director-general, Nachman Ash, said last week. “But if we see that the number and increase rate of severe cases are endangering the (health) system, then we will have to take further steps.”
Ran Balicer, chair of the government’s expert panel on Covid-19, said Israel had on average had about five severe cases of the virus and one death per day in the last week, after two weeks of zero deaths related to Covid-19.
Noting the impact of the Delta variant, he said the panel was advising caution over the removal of restrictions.
“We do not have enough data from our local outbreak to be able to predict with accuracy what would happen if we let go,” Balicer said.
Before the Delta variant struck the country, Israel had estimated 75% of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity” – the level at which enough of a population are immunized to be able to effectively stop a disease spreading. The estimated threshold is now 80%.
This data has left doctors concerned.
” … the virus won’t stop. It is evolving, its nature. But our nature is to survive,” said Dr Gadi Segal, head of the coronavirus ward at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv.
UK reopening too soon?
Israel’s strategy to combat the Delta challenge has drawn comparisons with that of the British government.
While the Boris Johnson-led government plans to reopen England’s economy from lockdown by July 19, Israel is in the process of reinstating some curbs.
The UK’s reopening plan has received some criticism as PM Johnson said on Monday confirmed that the lockdown will indeed end next week. However, he struck a note of caution.
PM Johnson urged the public to remain vigilant as the pandemic still poses a threat and therefore “caution” will be key in the coming weeks.
“This pandemic is not over. It continues to carry risks for you and your family, we cannot instantly revert to life as it was before Covid from July 19,” Johnson said at a virtual briefing from Downing Street in London.
While admitting that more deaths and hospitalisations are to be expected from coronavirus once lockdown ends, he said these had been “clearly foreseen” by the forecasters as he reiterated that opening up during the current warmer months would be a “natural advantage” over the deadly virus than in the winter months later in the year.
In a more cautious approach to the work from home guidance, Johnson added that the government does not “expect the whole country to return to their desk as one” from July 19, just because the guidance is changing.
An elderly woman receives a booster shot of vaccine in Israel. (Reuters)
A booster shot
Even the US, which also has among the highest vaccination rates, is vary of the Delta variant that is spreading rapidly in the country.
US top coronavirus adviser Dr Anthony Fauci on Sunday characterised the strain of Covid-19 as a “nasty variant”.
“It is very clear that this is a nasty variant. It has a much greater capacity of transmitting from person to person,” Fauci said.
The remarks come amid talks of a possible booster shot of the vaccine for greater protection against the virus.
Fauci himself said on Sunday that “it is entirely conceivable, maybe likely” that Americans will need a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in the coming months. However, he addedt that it is too soon for the government to recommend another shot yet.
Currently, around 48% of the US population is fully vaccinated. Some parts of the country have far lower immunization rates, and in those places the delta variant is surging.
While the US is yet to chalk out its strategy for a possible third shot, Israel has already started inoculating vulnerable groups with a booster dose.
On Sunday, the government began offering a third shot to people with a compromised immune system.
However, Israel is in no rush to approve public booster shots, saying there is no unequivocal data yet showing they are necessary.
The government said that for now, it is offering approval only to people with weak immune systems on a case-by-case basis.
(With inputs from Reuters, PTI)