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In the pandemic debate, a striking omission

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THE government is being criticised over its strategy for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Its critics claim that it is not doing enough to produce ‘social distance’ by restricting public contact. They point to other countries which have imposed much more draconian policies, such as banning large public meetings or shutting schools. The former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said he finds the government’s approach ‘surprising and concerning’, expressing particular surprise ‘that we’re still allowing external visits to care homes’.

In response, the government’s scientific advisers say it is impossible to stop the spread of the disease. Their strategy is to slow it down so that the NHS will not be overwhelmed. They actually want it to spread among the population, albeit slowly, so that ‘herd immunity’ can build up. This is because they believe that, even if the disease dies down it will spike again and the country needs to be able to deal with such multiple recurrences.

In addition, they say that while draconian measures may become necessary – and they’re floating the possibility that all over-70s might be asked to quarantine themselves for three months – the public wouldn’t tolerate such measures if they were introduced now; they would tire of them and fail to co-operate when they became most needed.

This is fundamentally a difficult judgment call. But leaving aside for the moment whether these critics are correct, there is surely one puzzling aspect of today’s coverage of this argument. It is the omission of any mention of Israel’s coronavirus strategy.

This is striking because Israel’s approach is surely worth remarking upon. From the start of this emergency, it took uncompromisingly tough proactive measures. It banned flights straight away, not just from China but from a range of countries where the virus was taking hold. It banned gatherings of more than 2,000, and introduced restrictions for visiting hospitals and care homes. At its general election on March 2, quarantined voters had to use polling stations constructed for them alone.

Now Israel’s measures have become more draconian still. It is instructing all arrivals by air to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and has banned all foreign visitors unless they can prove they can also do so – in effect, this bars most foreign visitors. It has banned all gatherings over 100, including synagogue services, shut the schools until mid-April and closed the universities. It has done all this and more despite cries of pain and warnings of imminent closures and bankruptcy from its tourism industry and its national airline El Al.

As a result of this approach, Israel’s rate of coronavirus, although rising, is more contained than in other countries. At time of writing, 126 Israelis out of a population of nine million have tested positive for the disease.

Some might think that Britain has much to learn from what Israel has done. Even given Britain’s slower rate of infection than other European countries, surely the comparison would be useful. Yet as far as I can see, there has been no mention of Israel at all in today’s media coverage or political comment. Why not?

This article first appeared in MelaniePhillips.com on March 13, 2020, and is republished by kind permission.

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Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips is a columnist at the Times,. She is the author of Guardian Angel: My Journey from Leftism to Sanity, and her first novel The Legacy was published in April.

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