Monday 22 February 2021 8:18 pm

Israel shows how to unlock a lockdown at lightning speed

While the UK government presented its roadmap for exiting Britain’s third lockdown today, all eyes are on Israel this week as the country’s government has already started to re-open the country’s domestic economy, a process which is expected to be completed within weeks.

The speed at which the restrictions are lifted is the most striking aspect of the plans. But it is also notable that those who have been vaccinated will be given more freedoms than those who have not, while international travel restrictions look set to stay in place.

“The next few weeks will be the acid test to see whether vaccinating the most vulnerable can allow restrictions to be eased without renewed strains in health systems,” said William Jackson, chief emerging markets economist at Capital Economics in London.

So far, Israel is the world leader in the vaccination race. Almost half of its population has received at least one vaccine dose and 30 per cent are fully vaccinated with two doses. Encouragingly, there is also growing evidence that vaccinations are helping to reduce Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths. And the government is starting to re-open the economy.

Why has Israel’s vaccination campaign been so successful? A range of features seems to underpin the rapid rollout.

“First and foremost, it secured good access to vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, helped by the promise that it would share data on the jab’s effectiveness,” explained Jackson to City A.M. this evening.

“Otherwise, it seems widely agreed that Israel’s vaccination drive has benefitted from a small land mass and population, a centralised system of government, an accurate and well-maintained register of its population and liberal guidelines about who gets vaccinated first,” he added.

Jackson pointed out that many of those features are shared by the UAE, another global vaccine leader.

But also, there’s been strong political willingness to push the vaccine drive. The roll-out of vaccines and the prospect of an end to the pandemic form an important part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign ahead of the general election next month.

Ending the lockdown

Earlier this month, schools partially re-opened and restrictions on travel were eased. And last week, the government unveiled a plan to re-open the economy further. This is occuring in two stages, Jackson said, with the first having started last Sunday and the next in early March.

“Overall, the plans point to a rapid re-opening of the economy. An important feature of Israel’s re-opening is that restrictions will be loosened further for those who have been vaccinated,” he noted.

Entry to things like sporting and cultural events, gyms and swimming pools, hotels and restaurants will be restricted to individuals with a ‘green badge’, a document that confirms that the individual has received two vaccine doses or has recovered from Covid-19.

“One caveat is that international travel will remain highly restricted for the time being,” Jackson said, pointing out that the government is moving cautiously on this front amid concerns of importing new virus variants.

“It has understandings with Greece and Cyprus to resume tourism travel, with the ‘hope’ of a broader re-opening in the middle of the year,” he added.

Vaccinating at lightning speed

Israel’s government didn’t set quantitative criteria for lifting its lockdown, but a few factors appear to lie behind the move to ease restrictions.

The first is that a high share, around 80 per cent, of those over the age of 70 have now been fully vaccinated. That, combined with the green badge system seems to have given the government confidence that it can ease the lockdown without risking a sharp increase in serious illnesses, said Jackson.

“It is notable that Israel was actually tightening its lockdown when a large share of the elderly had only received their first dose,” he said.

The second, and related, factor is that there is strong evidence to suggest that the vaccines have been highly effective in reducing illness. Over the last few days, preliminary findings were released from a study of those vaccinated in Israel which reported that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has 94 per cent efficacy after two doses, confirming the high levels of efficacy reported in the vaccine’s phase III trial. That’s matched by a decline in hospitalisations for Covid-19, particularly among the elderly.

“Finally, it’s worth noting that domestic politics has also influenced these decisions. The plans reflect compromises reached between officials at the health ministry – which had wanted to extend lockdowns – and parts of the ruling coalition that had wanted to remove restrictions more quickly,” Jackson said.

Remaining challenges

What challenges does Israel now face? Jackson pointed out that vaccine hesitancy appears to be a growing challenge now, particularly among the young, the Israeli Arab community and some members of the orthodox Jewish community.

“That may lie behind the slowdown in the pace of vaccinations in recent weeks. For the government, the main concern appears to be the remaining people over 50 who have yet to be vaccinated,” he said, pointing out this is approximately 10-20 per cent of the population aged 70 and over and 30-40 per cent of the population aged 50-69.

What lessons does Israel hold for the rest of the world? In many ways, Israel is a unique case, Jackson argued, as its vaccine supply is particularly good and its health system efficient.

“That has allowed a very rapid rollout of vaccines and the country is far ahead of the pack when it comes to fully vaccinating its population,” he observed.

“What’s more, the decision by Israel’s government to adopt a two-tier system, the green badge, to re-open its economy may not be replicable elsewhere due to public resistance, particularly if anti-vaccination sentiment is high and they are introduced when vaccines are not yet available to all,” Jackson continued.

Further lessons from Israel’s experience will become clear over the coming weeks but for Jackson there are perhaps two takeaways at this stage.

“The first is that, even if governments move to open their domestic economies quickly, they’re likely to be much more cautious about re-opening to international travel,” he said, while the second is that the next few weeks will be the acid test.

“If Israel lifts its lockdown without renewed strains in the health system, that will offer hope that lockdowns might be lifted quickly elsewhere. However, if hospitalisations rise back up again, others will surely take this as a cue to act even more cautiously,” Jackson concluded.