Bennett: Israel could beat COVID-19 variant without lockdown

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday that the country can beat a concerning rise in new coronavirus cases without a nationwide shutdown, but that depends in part on people wearing masks indoors to suppress the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

“The easiest thing is to do what they did in the past year and a half, to announce a lockdown. But we prefer a different approach,” Bennett told reporters at a news conference. “For us, locking people in their homes is a last resort.”

He spoke as new daily infections climbed to more than 700 on Wednesday. That’s despite one of the world’s fastest inoculation campaigns. More than 5.7 million people of Israel’s population of 9.3 million have been vaccinated at least once. Some 5.2 million people have received two doses.

Israel has a standing mask-wearing mandate for people gathering indoors, but adherence is poor — even on public transit and in hospitals — and enforcement is lax. Bennett said he instructed police to step up enforcement of mask rules with high fines.

Most cases are mild and serious cases remain relatively low — but almost all new cases are due to the contagious delta variant.

Bennett also announced that Prof. Salman Zarka, head of the Ziv Medical Center in northern Israel, will oversee the country’s response as the new coronavirus czar.

Zarka, a member of Israel’s Druze minority, formerly commanded the Israeli army’s medical corps and ran the Israeli field hospital providing humanitarian aid to Syrians.