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Coronavirus: Netanyahu enters second quarantine after health minister tests positive

Yaakov Litzman, 71, has appeared regularly alongside the Israeli premier to provide updates on the pandemic
Litzman, left, has scaled back public appearances in recent weeks (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been required to self-quarantine for a second time after coming into contact with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who tested positive for the coronavirus overnight on Wednesday.

Netanyahu had just ended a two-day period of self-isolation on Wednesday after meeting with close aide Rivka Paluch, the Knesset affairs adviser, who was diagnosed with the virus.

His office said the prime minister would self-isolate again - for six days this time - in line with medical recommendations.

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Several other senior officials, including the head of Israel's foreign intelligence agency Mossad, were also self-isolating due to contact with Litzman, Israeli media reported.

Litzman, 71, an ally of Netanyahu, has appeared regularly alongside the premier to provide updates on the pandemic and measures to combat it.

But Litzman has scaled back public appearances in recent weeks and the ministry's director-general - also now in isolation after contact with Litzman - held briefings instead.

Mossad chief self-isolating

Litzman and his wife, who was also diagnosed with the virus, feel well, the health ministry said in a statement on Thursday. 

"[An] epidemiological investigation will be carried out, and isolation requests will be sent to those who have come into contact with [him] and his wife in the past two weeks."

Health ministry director-general Moshe Bar-Siman-Tov will self-isolate at a facility at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, he said on Twitter. 

He said he would continue managing the crisis through "digital means".

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen will self-isolate at the intelligence agency's headquarters for three days, Israeli media reported.

Netanyahu tested negative for the virus on Monday after Paluch was confirmed to have it.

Israel has reported at least 31 deaths and more than 6,200 coronavirus infections. 

Tight curbs have largely confined Israelis to their homes, forcing businesses to close and causing unemployment to skyrocket to more than 24 percent.

"We ask you, citizens of Israel, all of you, to wear masks in the public sphere," Netanyahu said in televised remarks on Wednesday, adding that people could improvise "with a scarf or any other facial covering" in the absence of factory-produced masks.

Ultra-Orthodox prone to virus

Litzman heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party, and has appealed to his community to obey health ministry curbs after some rabbis and members cast doubt on the virus risk and chafed against stay-at-home orders.

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Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested.

Netanyahu announced new curbs on Wednesday to deter movement around Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish town that has suffered a disproportionately large outbreak.

"The public now has to listen to the health ministry," Litzman said in an interview published on Tuesday in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

"I proposed to the prime minister and interior minister today to put Bnei Brak on lockdown," he added. "The situation there is horrible. Every day we stall, we put lives at risk."