Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel began easing movement restrictions on Sunday while pointedly avoiding announcing any exit from an ongoing lockdown to forestall the spread of coronavirus.

A cabinet vote in the early hours of the morning approved several measures, including a reopening of high street shops, schools for children with special educational needs and a resumption of small scale prayer meetings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.

Most of the measures take effect from Sunday, while the selected schools will reopen their doors to pupils on Tuesday, according to the education ministry.

Prayer gatherings of up to 19 people at a time will be allowed, on condition that they take place in the open air with people wearing masks and at least two metres apart — higher than a limit of 10 people initially proposed by the prime minister on Saturday.

As part of social distancing, places of worship for all faiths had previously been closed and from April 12 wearing face masks in public became mandatory.

In a televised address on Saturday, Netanyahu had outlined “a responsible and gradual” plan allowing the return of some workers to offices and industry.

With Ramadan set to begin in the coming days, the premier urged Muslims in Israel to have “meals only with your nuclear family.”

Israel, which has a population of around nine million, confirmed its first coronavirus patient on February 21.

Israel has more than 13,360 confirmed cases of the illness, with 171 fatalities.

Its health ministry says that more than 3,500 patients have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

The past few days have seen a slowdown in new confirmed cases.

But Netanyahu warned that if infection rates started climbing again there would be a fresh clampdown.

“If we see that in two weeks’ time the improving trend continues, there will be further easing,” he said.

“If there should be an additional outbreak of corona(virus), we shall be obliged to backtrack.”

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Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad spoke in the same broadcast.

“It is important to stress that this is not the start of an exit strategy, we are not returning to normal,” he said.

Israel was an early and tough responder to the health crisis.

In late February it started barring travellers arriving from virus hotspots, gradually extending restrictions to a near-total air travel ban.

Then came regulations barring Israelis from leaving their homes except to go to the supermarket, pharmacy or hospital.

Netanyahu stressed that Israel’s rapid and tough response had proved effective compared to other states that were slower to impose restrictions.

“In Belgium, which is more or less the same size as us, there are over 5,000 deaths… these are not pointless comparisons,” he said.