Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday during a cabinet meeting that easing the nationwide lockdown "will cost many lives" as ministers argued over how long the coronavirus closure must be kept in place.
Israel's cabinet convened earlier to discuss an extension to its current strict lockdown as the country for the first time saw 10,000 coronavirus infections in one day.
"Many countries in Europe are extending the lockdown until March, some until April," said Netanyahu at the start of the meeting. "That's what we have to decide on today. It may not be popular, it's uncomfortable during the election campaign, but I expect everyone to support it ... If we lift the lockdown now, it will cost many human lives."
During the meeting, both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz demanded from the Health Ministry that Israelis as young as 16 be vaccinated as soon as possible. Netanyahu added that lockdown is the perfect time to expand the national inoculation campaign.
"We need to make an effort to boost vaccination drive, and for that to happen we need to extend the lockdown. We need to buy time, while there is a lockdown, it is possible to vaccinate millions. We need to go wherever there is a lag in vaccinations 'with a hammer' - the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities - until all of us are vaccinated."
The government was also set to discuss closing Ben-Gurion International Airport, the country's primary entry port, except for essential flights.
The plan for new restrictions at the airport also include making it compulsory for anyone boarding a flight to Israel to present a negative COVID test before doing so. These new regulations were unlikely to take effect before January 23.
Gantz said ahead of the government meeting that his Blue & White party is demanding effective enforcement of health mitigation regulations in areas with a high infection rate, namely ultra-Orthodox communities. He also demanded a stiff increase in the fines handed out to rule breakers, effective immediately, which he said "was decided months ago."
Gantz also called for students aged 16-18 to be vaccinated as soon as possible so that their matriculation exams could go ahead as planned.
The lockdown is due to end on Thursday, and although it has yielded a certain reduction in infections, those effects are still not being seen in the data.
As well as Israel seeing the highest daily infection rate since the start of the pandemic, its hospitals are also beginning to buckle under the load of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, which by Tuesday stood at 1,174 with 304 people on ventilators.
The Health Ministry was expected to ask the government to extend the closure by two weeks, although officials have indicated that they may compromise on 10 days.
Whichever date is agreed, the ministry is seeking to ensure that the closure does not end on at midnight on Thursday, in order to prevent people gathering en masse over the first weekend out of lockdown.
The country's hospitals warned this week that they are overwhelmed and the congestion threatens the quality of patient care.
Last Friday, a seriously ill coronavirus patient at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv died when overworked staff failed to notice that his ventilator was not working properly. Israel's struggling hospitals have warned that this will likely not be the only time such an incident occurs.
First published: 13:50 , 01.19.21