Flying to London early last week was surreal twice-over. Leaving Israel, Ben Gurion airport was eerily empty and there were only 50 passengers on the flight from Israel, which had already banned non-Israelis coming from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Austria as well as East Asian countries, and restricted the size of public gatherings, while in the UK, life was going on as usual.
If Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel has been swift to introduce dramatic and draconian measures - some might argue anti-democratic - to curb the spread of Covid-19, Boris Johnson's Britain has been reluctant to take action. Johnson even said earlier this month that one of the theories is that "perhaps you could take it on the chin," although he did immediately stress, "I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now."
But last week not very many measures were being taken. Flights were still landing in the UK from Italy with no checks at the airports. Central London was busy with local people going about their business but almost devoid of tourists, making it clear that Israel's decision to blacklist most of Western Europe was not destroying Israel's tourist industry - people were simply staying at home of their own volition. Meanwhile, back in Israel all people returning from abroad were ordered to go into self-isolation for two weeks - we would be in quarantine when we returned home.
On Tuesday of last week, while Israel was banning gatherings of over 2,000 people (reduced to 10 people by Saturday night), over 60,000 Brits packed the stands on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival horseracing event and over 250,000 flocked to the racecourse over the four-day event, slightly down on last year.
On Wednesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Rishi Sunak presented his annual budget and the media experts pored over its implications, as if the world's economy was not going into meltdown, and the budget would have no relevance within a few days.
On Thursday, the British government's chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor reiterated the country's herd immunity approach by which the virus would be allowed to pass through 60% of the population but at a delayed speed to help the National Health Service cope. It all sounded a bit like a 'laissez faire' survival of the fittest with the elderly and infirm sacrificed for the good of the herd. Johnson warned that, "many more families were going to lose loved ones."
On Friday the UK government blinked. Whether it was mounting numbers and deaths or harsh criticism of the herd immunity approach by the World Health Organization (WHO), which pointed out that we still know very little about the virus, is unclear. The herd immunity approach was redefined as a 'scientific concept' but not a goal.
However, while the UK government has since issued a slew of recommendations about closures and social distancing, nothing has been banned. The schools remain open, for example, although major sporting and public events have been called off by the organizing bodies. There are still no incoming overseas travel restrictions.
On Monday, we returned to Israel and were only allowed to board the plane in England after showing our Israeli passports because non-Israelis are not allowed in unless first registering with the Israeli consulate at an address and committing for two weeks self-isolation. There were 25 passengers on the flight.
Back in Israel all schools, kindergartens, restaurants, cafes, bars, places of entertainment, shopping malls have been closed and public gatherings reduced to 10. Private sector offices can only bring in 30% of their work-force - the rest must work at home. The Ministry of Health is only allowing people outside the home for essential needs - shopping and going to work.
We are in self-isolation for two weeks and breaking the quarantine is a criminal offense. But even after we complete our quarantine the latest Ministry of Health instructions will make little difference to our lives.
There are concerns that the Israeli government's measures to use anti-terrorism surveillance technology to track the smartphones of coronavirus sufferers is an encroachment on basic civil liberties and privacy.
For the moment the numbers: Israel has 427 cases of coronavirus and no fatalities while the UK has 1,950 cases and 69 fatalities.
But this is not the full picture. Britain's already underfunded NHS does not have the resources to test people who have Covid-19 symptoms and sufferers are asked to stay at home and sweat it out. A private test costs up to $400. The UK's chief scientific advisor estimates that the real number of coronavirus cases in the UK is 55,000. To be sure in Israel too, despite rigorous efforts to document every case and alert people they have come in contact with, many cases of the virus must have gone undetected, and it is these carriers who are likely now spreading the disease.
Time will very soon tell whether Israel's more anti-democratic approach or Britain's libertarianism is the wiser course.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on March 18, 2020
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