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Israel toughened its coronavirus measures on Thursday as a second nationwide lockdown failed to bring down the world’s highest infection rate a week after it was imposed, AFP reports.

The new rules will close the vast majority of workplaces, shutter markets and further limit prayers and demonstrations.

“Saving lives is our priority – we are living in a moment of national crisis,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised news conference late Thursday, justifying the decision to reinforce restrictions.

“The State of Israel will overcome the epidemic and we will emerge stronger,” he added without detailing all the measures taken by his government.

The move comes as Israel is poised to enter the second week of a three-week lockdown imposed last Friday, which included the closure of schools and restrictions on work and leisure.

Under the new measures approved during a first reading by parliament on Thursday, only “essential” work will be permitted from 2.00 pm local time (1100 GMT) on Friday and synagogues will only be allowed to open on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that begins Sunday afternoon.

At other times, only outdoor prayer with a maximum of 20 people in attendance will be allowed. The same restrictions have been applied to demonstrations.

A decision on whether to close Ben Gurion international airport outside Tel Aviv would be made later on Thursday, the government said.

“To save the lives of Israel’s citizens, we need to impose a full lockdown now for two weeks,” Netanyahu said earlier.

“This is also necessary for the economy. Whoever thinks we can work with a raging pandemic, with death and infections rising, without it affecting the economy, is wrong.”

Israel has the world’s highest coronavirus infection rate per capita, according to an AFP tally from the past fortnight – more than 200,000 infections have been recorded, out of a population of nine million.

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