Israel resumes indoor mask requirement amid virus spike

Jerusalem (AFP) –


The Israeli health ministry reimposed a requirement Friday for masks to be worn in enclosed public places following a surge in Covid cases since it was dropped 10 days ago.

The spike in new infections is a blow for a country which has prided itself on one of the world's most successful vaccine rollouts.

The head of Israel's pandemic response taskforce, Nachman Ash, told public radio the requirement came after four days of more than 100 new cases a day, with 227 cases confirmed Thursday.

"We are seeing a doubling every few days," Ash said. "Another thing that's worrying is that the infections are spreading. If we had two cities where most of the infections were, we have more cities where the numbers are rising and communities where the cases are going up."

Ash said the rise in cases was likely due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus first seen in India.

Reimposing the mask requirement is a setback for Israel, coming so soon after it was lifted on June 15 on the back of a successful vaccination campaign.

Some 5.2 million people have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, after Israel obtained millions of doses.

Ash said despite the increased number of positive cases, he did not yet see a parallel rise in hospitalisations or deaths.

"It's clear it's a factor of time, that not enough time has passed," Ash said. "But we hope the vaccines will protect us from a rise in hospitalisation and difficult cases."

- Masks urged for pride events -

The health ministry urged Israelis to wear masks in crowded outdoor spaces too, including at pride events scheduled for this weekend.

A pride march scheduled for Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. The event is resuming after it was suspended last year due to the virus.

Israel became a pioneer in Covid inoculations after then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained millions of doses from Pfizer in exchange for sharing health data on the vaccines' impact.

In February, Netanyahu celebrated the arrival of a batch of vaccines saying: "We have made Israel a global model for success."

The resulting fall in new cases allowed much of daily life to return to normal but it did not save Netanyahu his job. He was replaced as prime minister earlier this month by his onetime aide turned foe Naftali Bennett.

Bennett warned Tuesday of a "new outbreak" of coronavirus. On a visit to Ben Gurion international airport, he announced a new Covid testing facility for incoming travellers and strengthened enforcement of quarantine orders for those returning from overseas.

To cut down on the spread of the virus, he asked Israelis to cancel their travel plans. "Whoever doesn't have to fly abroad, please don't," Bennett said.

On Wednesday, Israel announced it was delaying delayed plans to reopen its borders to individual tourists.

Bennett urged parents to vaccinate children aged 12 and older "as soon as possible," noting that Israel's stock of vaccines would soon expire.

A deal to trade soon-to-expire vaccines with the Palestinian Authority for new shots arriving in the autumn fell apart last week amid mutual accusations of bad faith.

Israel has faced criticism for refusing to vaccinate most Palestinians living in the West Bank, or in the Gaza Strip, which is under Israeli blockade. Israeli citizens living in West Bank settlements have been eligible to take part in its vaccination programme, however.