On 22 July, Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett delivered a strong message to the roughly one million Israelis who are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine but, due to scepticism or neglect, have chosen not to get it.
“The science is clear – the vaccines work, they’re safe and they’re effective,” he said in a special address to the nation. “Vaccine refusers are endangering their own health, the health of those around them and the freedom of all Israelis. Our freedom to work, our children’s freedom to study, our freedom to celebrate with our families. They’re hurting all of us, because if everyone gets the jab, everyone will be able to return to normal.”
This wasn’t just rhetoric. Bennett announced that from 8 August, Israelis must present a vaccination certificate or a negative Covid test if they want to attend cinemas, theatres, amusement parks, football matches or any outdoor and indoor activities involving more than 100. Synagogues are no longer exempt from restrictions (perhaps because, unlike the previous government, Bennett’s administration does not rely on ultra-Orthodox parties to remain in power). On top of this, the state will no longer fund Covid tests for people who aren’t vaccinated. “There’s no reason the taxpayer and those who fulfilled their civic duty to get vaccinated should pay for those who won’t,” Bennett said.
Israel has seen a surge in Covid cases in recent weeks driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant.
This is despite Israel having one of the world’s most successful vaccination programmes: about 80 per cent of the adult population was vaccinated by the end of May and the country reopened after lockdown on the first day of June. Normality seemed almost within reach as infections dropped to single digits – but now, as the rest of the world is opening up, Israel is shutting down once more.
The new first clusters of Covid cases in June spread from schools: Israel has started vaccinating 16-18-year-olds, but the under-18s are still the least-vaccinated group. At the time of writing, there are over 11,500 confirmed Covid cases in Israel, with around 200 patients hospitalised; half of those are in a serious condition and only 20 are on ventilators. Around half of patients in Israeli hospitals are vaccinated, and most belong to higher risk groups: those over 60 years old, and/or with underlying health conditions.
[See also: The race to beat US vaccine hesitancy]
To deal with the current spike in cases, the government has reimposed mask-wearing indoors. This isn’t a matter of personal choice, as in England, but a requirement, as Bennett made clear in his announcement last week. “Masks have been proven as exceptionally effective in protecting you and those around you,” he said. “When two people wear masks the chances they’ll infect each other drop by 98 percent. So everyone in the country has to wear a mask in indoor settings. This isn’t a recommendation. It’s your legal duty.”
Along with this, Israel is ramping up its vaccine drive, offering Pfizer vaccines to 12-18-year-olds and a third booster shot for at-risk patients originally planned for autumn.
It’s too soon to tell if the change of tone will be effective against the coronavirus surge, especially as sanctions on the unvaccinated won’t come into force until 8 August. But the effect of the government’s zero-tolerance attitude towards vaccine sceptics will be studied closely by leaders across the world. If Israel succeeds in suppressing the Delta variant surge through these strict measures, it will provide a strong case in favour of vaccine passports.