Middle East updates: Israel rations coronavirus testing; health minister under fire

In a sudden reversal of policy, Israel's health ministry has announced a cutback in coronavirus testing. The World Health Organisation regards testing as an essential component in the battle against COVID-19 and Israel had been planning to increase testing levels to 10,000 a day by early next week. However, supplies of the essential chemical reagent are running low and in an effort to conserve them testing will, in effect, be rationed.

Under the ministry's new guidelines, people with typical coronavirus symptoms will not be tested unless they have been abroad during the previous two weeks.

Those without symptoms will only be tested if they have spent more than 15 minutes with a confirmed coronavirus patient or have returned from a country with a high rate of infections.

Meanwhile, there are calls for the dismissal of health minister Ya'acov Litzman, a follower of Hasidic Judaism. He is currently under fire for flouting his own ministry's rules on social distancing, and is reported to have attended group prayers on at least two occasions during the past week.

On Wednesday he was diagnosed with the virus, forcing prime minister Netanyahu, the heads of the Mossad and the National Security Council, and the director-general of the health ministry all to go into quarantine.

Fears as Palestinian workers return from Israel

Thousands of Palestinian workers are expected to return from Israel to the West Bank ahead of Passover which begins on Wednesday – raising fears that this will lead to a further spread of the virus.

The Palestinian Authority wants them to be tested by Israel before they arrive. There are also reported to be Israeli-Palestinian talks about arrangements for their return after Passover.

The recent rise in new cases in the West Bank appears to be mainly the result of an outbreak among Palestinian workers at a poultry factory in the Israeli industrial zone of Atarot. The factory has 500 employees and according to Haaretz newspaper 41 of them have tested positive. A further 250 employees are being quarantined in the West Bank.

New cases

There are continuing signs that Iran's coronavirus epidemic is subsiding. For the fourth day running, there was a small drop in the number of new cases reported yesterday – to 2,715.

New cases reported in Iran, day by day during the last four weeks

Across the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, a further 1,690 cases have been confirmed since yesterday's update. This is 257 below the previous day's total which was the highest so far recorded.

Once again, Israel had the highest number of new cases (559), followed by the UAE with 240 and Algeria with 185.

The list below shows cumulative totals since the outbreak began, with day-on-day increases in brackets:

Algeria 1,171 (+185)
Bahrain 673 (+30)
Egypt 985 (+120)
Iraq 820 (+48)
Israel 7,589 (+559)
Jordan 310 (+11)
Kuwait 417 (-)
Lebanon 508 (-)
Libya 17 (+7)
Morocco 844 (+109)
Oman 277 (+25)
Palestine 205 (+34)
Qatar 1,075 (+126)
Saudi Arabia 2,039 (+154)
Sudan 10 (+2)
Syria 16 (-)
Tunisia 495 (+40)
UAE 1,264 (+240)

TOTAL: 18,715 (+1,690)

New cases reported in the Middle East (excluding Iran) day by day during the last four weeks

Death toll

Iran reported a further 134 coronavirus-related deaths yesterday, bringing the official total to 3,294. Elsewhere in the region a further 47 deaths brought the total to 405.

Algeria 105 (+22)
Bahrain 4 (-)
Egypt 66 (+8)
Iraq 54 (-)
Israel 42 (+5)
Jordan 5 (-)
Lebanon 17 (-)
Morocco 50 (+3)
Oman 1 (-)
Palestine 1 (-)
Qatar 3 (-)
Saudi Arabia 25 (+4)
Sudan 2 (-)
Syria 2 (-)
Tunisia 18 (+4)
UAE 9 (+1)

TOTAL: 405 (+47)

Deaths reported in the Middle East (excluding Iran) day by day since 10 March

CLICK HERE for previous updates

For anyone interested: A spreadsheet documenting the new coronavirus cases and deaths reported in the region each day can be viewed here.