Israel’s health minister diagnosed with coronavirus, officials self-isolate

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife were diagnosed with coronavirus and are in isolation following guidelines, his ministry said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman gesture as they deliver statements during a visit to the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

Several other senior officials, including the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency Mossad, were also self-isolating due to contact with Litzman, Israeli media reported.

Litzman, 71, an ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has appeared regularly alongside the premier to provide updates on the pandemic and measures to combat it.

But Litzman has scaled back public appearances in recent weeks and the ministry’s director-general – also now in isolation after contact with Litzman – held briefings instead.

Litzman and his wife feel well, the health ministry said in a statement. “(An) epidemiological investigation will be carried out, and isolation requests will be sent to those who have come into contact with (him) and his wife in the past two weeks.”

Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar-Siman-Tov will self-isolate at a facility at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, he said on Twitter. He said he would continue managing the crisis through “digital means”.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen will self-isolate at the intelligence agency’s headquarters for three days, Israeli media reported.

Netanyahu tested negative for the virus on Monday after a parliamentary aide was confirmed to have it. The right-wing premier, 70, was in self-isolation until late on Wednesday, but it was not immediately clear if he had any contact with Litzman.

Israel has reported at least 29 deaths and more than 6,200 infections. Tight curbs have largely confined Israelis to their homes, forcing businesses to close and causing unemployment to skyrocket to more than 24%.

Litzman heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party, and has appealed to his community to obey health ministry curbs after some rabbis and members cast doubt on the virus risk and chafed against stay-at-home orders.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested.

Netanyahu announced new curbs on Wednesday to deter movement around Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town that has suffered a disproportionately large outbreak.

“The public now has to listen to the health ministry,” Litzman said in an interview published on Tuesday in the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper.

“I proposed to the prime minister and interior minister today to put Bnei Brak on lockdown,” he added. “The situation there is horrible. Every day we stall, we put lives at risk.”

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Andrew Cawthorne