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Israel health chief: If we’d not been tough, we could have wound up like Belgium

Israel’s Health Ministry director-general on Friday defended the country’s tough lockdown measures in the battle against COVID-19, saying if it hadn’t acted responsibly it could have found itself in a similar situation to Belgium.

Moshe Bar Siman-Tov was asked in a TV interview whether his own prediction in recent weeks, and that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that tens of thousands of Israelis could die from COVID-19, was exaggerated, when the current Israeli tally is below 200 fatalities and the restrictions are gradually being rolled back.

“We have a very simple check,” he said. “We were at a rate where the number of new patients was doubling every three days… There was a single day when the number of seriously ill patients rose by 50%.

“If that trend had continued, today we’d have over 600,000 people [sick], over 10,000 on ventilators, and many thousands who would have ended their lives.”

Pushed directly on whether that kind of concern has proven exaggerated, especially with Israel’s economy tanking and unemployment having soared from below 4% to over 26%, he replied: “I don’t think so… There are enough control groups — look at Belgium.” Belgium has a population slightly larger than Israel’s and a death toll approaching 7,000.

Bar Simon-Tov was asked again by the anchor: “If ordinary life had continued, we would have reached those numbers of dead?”

“I’m not a prophet,” he said, “but there are enough examples showing that countries that did not act responsibly have had many, many more dead, many, many more on ventilators and the collapse of their health systems… We’ve been following a policy that prevents that.”

He said a discussion on when to open schools would be held next week.

“We’re preparing further eased restrictions,” he said, adding, “we’re well aware of the economic damage… But the prime imperative has been to protect the health of the public… Look at what happened in other countries.”

Asked whether the warmer climate has impacted the spread of infection, he said there was “no indication to that effect” yet.

Asked about the logic of allowing branches of IKEA to reopen this week, on one hand, and sending swarms of cops to arrest an isolated surfer, on the other, he said he knew there have been some such issues, and broadly “we need to ease up” on sports restrictions.

Asked what he will do when the latest raft of eased restrictions take effect on Sunday, he said he hopes he’ll have time to get a haircut.

Header: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right) and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. Netanyahu is explaining how the coronavirus can spread from a sneeze. (Flash90)