Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leading member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, has tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to re-enter precautionary quarantine, officials said Thursday.
Netanyahu’s previous quarantine, imposed earlier this week after one of his staffers tested positive for the novel coronavirus, had ended Wednesday night, his office said.
The premier’s new seven-day self-isolation was imposed following his contacts with the 71-year-old Litzman, the prime minister’s office said.
Litzman of the Gur Hassidic sect — whose wife also tested positive — is the most prominent member of the hard-hit ultra-Orthodox community to test positive for the virus that has infected more than 6,200 Israelis.
“Litzman and his wife feel well, are receiving treatment and will be quarantined and supervised,” a health ministry statement said.
The ministry added that its director-general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, along with other senior officials, will also enter quarantine following contacts with Litzman.
Israeli media also reported that the head of the Mossad spy agency, Yossi Cohen, may also be compelled to self-isolate after having had contact with Litzman, but that information could not be immediately confirmed.
The rising caseload has spurred Israel to increasingly tighten restrictions, with the latest measures aimed directly at ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities that have resisted social distancing rules.
According to health ministry data, ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and cities have become COVID-19 hotspots after leading rabbis had initially ignored and even refuted state orders to close educational institutions and limit synagogue attendance.
Netanyahu on Wednesday said there had been “a very positive change among the ultra-Orthodox public”.
He said the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim in Hebrew, had now “well internalised the danger of the spread of the coronavirus”.
They are “listening to the instructions and behaving responsibly, with full backing from the rabbis,” he added.
In a televised address, Netanyahu said movement to and from the central Israeli ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak would be reduced “to the necessary minimum”.
The quarantined and sick from Bnei Brak would be taken away to hotels elsewhere in the country, the right-wing premier added.
Netanyahu also told Israelis to wear face masks in public, in a reversal of policy.
“If you do not have a mask, use a scarf or any other face covering that will reduce the spread of the virus to others,” he said.