Israel is considering a carrot and stick approach to persuade people to get vaccinated, including granting inoculated people access to restaurants, hotels and concerts, while forcing some vaccine refusers to get uncomfortable Covid tests every two days.
“Will you be eligible to enter gyms and cultural events, or will you be left behind?” tweeted the health minister, Yuli Edelstein. “Go get vaccinated!”
Meanwhile, the health ministry has expanded a digital taskforce to combat anti-vax misinformation online, hoping to block false claims before they spread. Trackers now monitor social media daily, and in several languages.
Israel’s vaccination campaign is being closely watched by other governments that see it as a test case for what lies ahead.
The country is also providing vital data on the impact of the jabs, with initial results largely positive. A study released on Sunday by the country’s largest healthcare provider indicated the Pfizer/BioNTech jab offered 94% protection against Covid-19. Clalit Health Services said its researchers tested 600,000 patients who had received the recommended two doses and a similar-sized control group.
Although the country of 9 million has launched a world-leading vaccination drive, with more than 40% having received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, a recent slowdown has concerned officials.
In January, when Israel was mostly inoculating older and vulnerable people, up to 150,000 a day were given their first shots. This month, despite jabs being made available to anyone over the age of 16, that figure has often dropped to fewer than 60,000, according to health ministry statistics.
It is hard to tell whether the slowdown is caused by apathy among younger populations, for whom the disease is significantly less likely to be fatal, or anti-vax sentiment. Health ministry trackers have found fake claims that the vaccine causes infertility and death.
Among the country’s isolated Jewish ultra-Orthodox population, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus, misinformation has spread offline. In some neighbourhoods posters have been put up that say rabbis are opposed to the vaccine.
Israel’s Arab minority, who are often distrustful of the government, also has low vaccination rates.
The prime minister has warned that more than half a million Israelis over the age of 50 have still not received a jab. “I remind you of the most dramatic piece of data,” said Benjamin Netanyahu. “Ninety-seven per cent of deaths and 93% of severe cases are in this group.”
Israel’s longest-serving leader is betting on a successful vaccine campaign to help him win re-election on 23 March.
As a further step, Netanyahu has suggested legislation to give local authorities lists of unvaccinated people “to encourage them to be vaccinated and save lives”.
The proposal has raised concerns about privacy and patient confidentiality. “[G]overnments rarely go one step forward and one step back when they start riding roughshod over constitutional rights,” Mordechai Kremnitzer, a public law expert, wrote in Haaretz newspaper.