Only four weeks ago, Israel fully reopened its skies to vaccinated tourists after it had barred foreign visitors early in the pandemic. But by midnight Sunday, its borders are expected to again be closed to foreigners.
The rapid reversal came after a late-night meeting Saturday of Israel’s coronavirus cabinet and constituted a broader ban than those imposed by most countries so far. The United States, Britain, Canada, the European Union and other nations have all announced bans on travellers from southern Africa, where the variant was first detected.
Those bans have triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban, Morocco said Sunday it too would deny entry to all travellers, even Moroccan citizens, for two weeks beginning Monday. Officials there said more measures were expected to follow, including a ban on outgoing flights, and the closure of land and sea borders.
In Israel, all foreign nationals will be banned from entering for at least 14 days, except for urgent humanitarian cases to be approved by a special exceptions committee. Returning vaccinated Israelis will be tested upon landing and will have to self-quarantine for three days, pending results of another PCR test. Unvaccinated Israelis will have to self-quarantine for seven days.
Israelis returning from countries classified as “red,” with high risk of infection, including most African countries, will have to enter a quarantine hotel until they receive a negative result from the airport test, then transfer to home quarantine (until they get a seven-day PCR test result).
Ran Balicer, chair of an expert panel that advises the Israeli government on COVID-19 response, said the decision was taken as a temporary precaution.
“Since it is not unlikely that omicron is in fact disseminating in additional countries that have not yet recognized those clusters, it is therefore most prudent, for a short interim period of uncertainty, to take this extra-safe approach and delay incoming tourism altogether,” said Balicer, who attended the cabinet meeting.
“The aim is to postpone as far as possible uncontrolled local transmission of omicron in the country, ideally by weeks,” he said, adding, “Not every country already has the capacity to systematically detect the new strain at this point. Additional countries are therefore likely to detect the strain for the first time in the coming days.”
Israel has identified at least one confirmed case of omicron so far — a woman who arrived from Malawi — and testing has provided indications of several more likely cases in the country.
On Sunday, the Israeli Ministry of Health called for all passengers who rode a bus from Tel Aviv to the southern Red Sea resort city of Eilat on Nov 22 to get a PCR test and self-isolate, after it was revealed that the woman from Malawi was on that bus.
Israel only recently emerged from a fourth wave of the virus that saw one of the world’s highest rates of daily infections from the delta strain. Officials attributed the containment of that outbreak to a rapid rollout of booster shots that began in August, after Israeli scientists detected waning immunity in people five to six months after they had received their second Pfizer shot.
In an effort to get ahead of the next crisis, the Israeli government held a drill code-named “omega” this month to test nationwide preparations for the outbreak of a new, lethal COVID variant.
“The most threatening thing is not even the current situation but what we do not yet know,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the drill Nov 11. “Just like the delta strain broke out violently, other, even more deadly and more infectious strains could come, which could bypass the vaccine.”
At least 80% of people living in Israel over the age of 16 have been vaccinated, but the numbers are lower in younger age groups. Israel began vaccinating children ages 5 to 11 last week, but the initial uptake has been slow. About 1 million Israelis who are now eligible for a booster shot have not yet taken one, out of a total population of 9 million.
Israel’s COVID policy now revolves around trying to keep the economy fully open and avoid internal lockdowns, while strictly controlling the borders.
But the reimposed entry restrictions have abruptly upended holiday plans for tourists from abroad. Esther Block, from London, has been waiting for the good part of two years to visit lifelong friends in Israel, one of whom is now 87. “We were due to come when Israel first locked down,” said Block, 57, “and we have been postponing ever since.”
Block is double vaccinated, was scheduled to get a booster shot next week and also recovered from COVID about four weeks ago. Her teenage son planned to get a second shot next week, so the family had started planning a trip to Israel over the December holidays.
“Now I don’t know when I’ll be able to come,” Block said. “I feel pretty gutted. But I actually think we should all be doing what Israel is doing. It seems sensible to be cautious, in spite of it being incredibly frustrating.”
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