Are new restrictions justified? Confusion reigns amid spread of new variant

Israel introduced new restrictions on malls despite finance minster saying omicron is no worse than the flu. 

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

Israeli officials have clashed over how to respond to the Omicron variant, as confusion remains over how much of a threat the variant poses to the Israeli public.

On Tuesday, Israel’s cabinet voted to place new restrictions on businesses, capping capacity in malls to one person for every 15 square feet, banning eat-in dining, and requiring a green pass to enter non-essential stores over 100 square meters in size.

The measures followed new travel restriction introduced Monday, including a ban on Israelis travelling to or from the United States.

However, not all ministers agree that the restrictions are necessary.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman told his cabinet colleagues that there was no case to be made for new restrictions, as the Omicron variant is no worse than seasonal flu.

“We have been living with Omicron for a month and a half already. So far only 12 people have died across the world from it as far as we know,” Liberman said.

“In terms of the influence of Omicron, I don’t see it as being any more disruptive at the moment than flu. And just as we live with flu, now we live with Omicron.”

As for fresh restrictions, “That takes us straight into the world of financial compensation,” he said.

His comments were criticized by Director General of the Health Ministry, Prof. Nachman Ash, who told Ynet that it was too early to say how serious Omicron might be.

“I think the government is conducting a serious debate, as it has done since the start of the pandemic,” Ash said. “With vaccines available and preliminary reports that there may not be a more serious illness caused by Omicron, there is consideration of the next steps that must be taken.”

In a measure of how on-edge the country is, on Monday night it was reported that an Israeli man had died due to the Omicron variant at Soroka Medical Centre in Beersheba, despite the hospital telling reporters at the time that the man had in fact died of unrelated causes, and was merely thought to have been carrying Omicron at the time of his death.

The hospital later issued a correction, as he was subsequently found to have been infected with Delta, not Omicron, when he died.

Last week, South Africa released the results of a study by Discovery Health and the South African Medical Research Council which compared 78,000 Omicron cases to 100,000 other Covid cases.

Dr. Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health, said: “The data indicates that the severity of Omicron is 29 per cent lower than what was experienced in the first wave here in South Africa.”

UK Government Covid adviser Professor Robert Dingwall told the Telegraph that the British government’s response to Omicron, which is in line with Israel’s, is an overreaction.

The South Africans “clearly don’t feel that the elite panic over here is justified, even allowing for the demographic differences in vulnerability – which are probably more than cancelled by the higher vaccination rate,” he said.

“My gut feeling is that Omicron is very much like the sort of flu pandemic we planned for – a lot of sickness absence from work in a short period, which will create difficulties for public services and economic activity, but not of such a severity as to be a big problem for the NHS and the funeral business.”