((This Dec. 27 story corrects the headline. It also corrects to reflect end-January goal))
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel began what officials hope will be its last coronavirus lockdown on Sunday as they ramp up vaccinations to a pace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said may allow an emergence from the pandemic in February.
If realised, that could help Netanyahu’s re-election hopes after missteps that include lifting a first lockdown with a premature declaration of victory in May, inconsistent enforcement of curbs and sluggish economic relief.
Since beginning vaccinations a week before Sunday’s European Union roll-out, Israel’s centralised health system has administered 280,000 shots, the world’s fastest rate.
The opening of 24/7 vaccination stations is under consideration. Netanyahu wants the daily rate doubled to 150,000 shots by next weekend.
That would enable, by the end of January, administering both first and follow-up shots to the elderly and other vulnerable groups that make up a quarter of Israel’s 9 million citizens and have accounted for 95% of its COVID-19 deaths, Netanyahu said.
“As soon as we are done with this stage … we can emerge from the coronavirus, open the economy and do things that no country can do,” he said in a televised address.
The conservative premier is running in a March 23 election called after his governing coalition collapsed this month.
An Israel Democracy Institute poll released on Sunday found that 40.8% of the public gave the government mostly positive ratings for its handling of the crisis’ medical aspects, while 32.2% gave it mostly negative ratings. On the economic aspects, the government’s ratings were 52.8% negative and 19.7% positive.
Sunday’s lockdown – the country’s third – will last at least three weeks and aims to tamp down contagions that are currently doubling in scale every two weeks, the Health Ministry said.
The vaccines mean “there is a very high chance that this is our final lockdown”, Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio.
Israel has logged almost 400,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,210 deaths.
(Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Larry King)