Analysis: Government wanted to tighten restrictions and restrict access of unvaccinated to shopping malls, but move drew widespread criticism, serving as further proof that curbs are politically motivated, and it could translate to a lack of trust in vaccines

Israel is ratcheting up its efforts to increase vaccination rates among its population, by imposing further restrictions on the public. The move comes as the country tries to stop the spread of omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant. Public outcry on certain restrictions has led the government to back down, as the debate in the country on how to treat the unvaccinated population rages.

The government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, wanted to tighten restrictions on commerce by differentiating between vaccinated and nonvaccinated people.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Photo: Emil Salman)


The plan announced earlier this week would have allowed unvaccinated people to enter shopping malls with limited access to just essential businesses such as supermarkets and pharmacies. Different color bracelets would have been handed out according to vaccination status. This plan drew widespread criticism, ranging from anti-vaccination activists to shopping mall owners who fear their businesses will suffer. Store owners threatened to petition the Supreme Court in an attempt to stop the plan.

While the government ultimately retracted the bracelet plan, it is still intent on imposing restrictions on shopping malls under the Green Pass, which provides proof of vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus. It is unclear how this will be implemented.

The list of red countries Israelis will be barred from travel to also has been extended, going into effect this weekend. The list approved on Wednesday includes Ireland, Norway, Spain, Finland, France, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates.

To date, most of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. However, over two million Israelis that are eligible for the third booster shot have not received it. Initial data from research conducted in the country show significantly reduced efficacy against the omicron variant without the booster shot.

Israeli medics administer the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to Palestinians at the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, Feb. 23, 2021
Israeli medics administer the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine (Photo: AP)


The number of those not receiving the booster shot increases on a daily basis, as the time from people receiving the second vaccine increases.

According to Professor Nadav Davidovitch, Director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and head of the Association of Public Health Physicians in Israel, it is mainly people under the age of 50 who have not gone on to receive the booster. The reasons are varied.

“Some people feel that they are safe with just two vaccines and that there is less danger after the fourth wave,” said Davidovitch. “With omicron and the rumors of possible further restrictions, there has been an increase in recent days in people getting the booster shot but it is too soon to tell whether this is a trend.”

The socioeconomic status of many of the people choosing to evade the third jab is critical to understanding the reason for the gap in numbers and could offer pointers as to how to close it.

“The stronger the socioeconomic background, the more people got the booster shot,” he explained. “It has to do with health literacy, the exposure to fake news, access to data, but also to pandemic fatigue.”

Israelis, like many others all around the world, are tired of living in times of a global pandemic where they are under constant restrictions and uncertainty.

“Certain populations, especially in the social and geographic periphery of the country, need specific targeting to get the booster shot, not just a general directive,” Davidovitch said.

Child receives dose of COVID-19 vaccine
Child receives dose of COVID-19 vaccine (Photo: Reuters)


In general, young people feel less at risk from COVID-19, which has been largely labeled as a disease that severely affects the elderly.

At the height of Israel’s fourth COVID-19 wave, the Israeli government undertook a massive vaccination drive and allowed for easier access to vaccinations in city centers and in remote areas.
As infections rates went down, the effort waned.

The arrival of omicron, together with the recent approval of vaccines for children from the age of five, has the government pushing again. This week, vaccines were brought to schools, after previously being available at Israel’s four national health maintenance organizations.

In Arab population centers, the move brought a major increase in the rate of vaccinated children, which was in single digits prior to the effort. The Health Ministry has launched a major effort to battle fake news with constant monitoring of social media and countering misinformation with answers and official data.

There are still approximately 600,000 Israeli adults who are eligible for the vaccine and have not received even one dose. Davidovitch believes this number can be cut in half, through a concerted national effort.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to impose Green Pass restrictions on shopping malls
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wants to impose Green Pass restrictions on shopping malls (Photo: Ido Erez, Mark Israel Salem)


By imposing new restrictions on commerce, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seems to believe he can change the numbers; this would involve applying pressure in the form of new and previously unused restrictions.

“Until now, the use of the Green Pass made sense. Restrictions on the number of people and activities that are less essential was logical,” said Dr. Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. “It looks like the current restrictions look to distance from this logic, moving toward trying to make people get vaccinated.”

While such restrictions are legal and will likely pass Supreme Court scrutiny, the public discontent has Bennett and his government recalculating their moves.

“Epidemiological reasoning will convince people to get vaccinated, not such moves that will be ineffective,” said Fuchs. “The restrictions seem to be driven by the political level and not by the experts. It makes the restrictions less convincing and less justified.”

Barring unvaccinated people from entering certain stores located in a shopping mall does not distance them from vaccinated shoppers while browsing in the mall itself. For some of the people who are hesitant to get vaccinated, such moves serve as further proof that the restrictions are politically motivated.

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The Israeli government find it hard to decide what is the next right move (Photo: Emil Salman)


The heated debate on virus restrictions before vaccinations was made available has become intertwined with the vaccine debate.

“There might have been criticized on how governments handled the pandemic, especially with regard to infringing on personal rights,” said Davidovitch. “This combined brought to a lack of trust (in the government), which then translated to a lack of trust in the vaccines.”

As there is no major rise in infection rates, there is no sense of urgency in the public. This makes requiring restrictions, and also vaccinations, a tougher sell. Some people may be convinced to get inoculated in order to be less restricted in their daily lives. But, others may feel that the more the government clamps down, the more entrenched they remain in their choice not to get inoculated.

“The closer we get to coercion, the more concerning the situation it is. We should focus on widely distributing information and convincing people, rather than forcing people to do things,” Fuchs concluded.

As reported by Ynetnews