Two days ahead of Israel’s scheduled lifting of the vast majority of coronavirus restrictions, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said Sunday that there were no plans to end quarantine requirements for travelers.
“We are not thinking about an easing [of restrictions] at Ben Gurion Airport. We will continue to test those returning to Israel and isolate them,” Levy told Army Radio. “This is the place where quarantine is important as undetected sickness can bring the infection back to Israel.”
The comments meant that families with young children could find it difficult to travel this summer, with unvaccinated returnees required to quarantine for at least 10 days. Israel is set to begin vaccinating teens aged 12-15 in the coming weeks.
Israel has all but emerged from the pandemic, with most businesses and schools back to normal following the country’s world-leading vaccination drive over the past few months.
However concern remains over the potential entry of vaccine-resistant strains of the coronavirus into the country. Vietnam announced Saturday that it has discovered a new COVID-19 variant that spreads quickly by air and is a combination of the Indian and British strains. It is not yet known if current vaccines can prevent its spread.
Meanwhile, ministers voted Friday to add Russia and Argentina to Israel’s travel ban list starting Monday in light of rising infection rates in those places.
The two countries will join Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey as red countries with travel to and from Israel banned, unless special government dispensation is given.
Still, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash last week urged Israelis not to vacation abroad anywhere for the time being.
“I think it’s not yet the time for that, since the infections in the world are high in many places, including Europe,” Ash told the Ynet news site. “The danger of getting infected there is very high, including for the vaccinated. Occasionally we see vaccinated people who arrive from abroad with new variants, so it’s worth holding off on these trips.”
The warnings over travel came with Israel set to lift the remaining coronavirus restrictions on gatherings starting Tuesday, and will no longer limit entry to certain venues only to the vaccinated, following the near-vanquishing of COVID-19 in the country as a result of its successful vaccine drive.
The so-called Purple Badge and Green Pass systems will be scrapped, meaning that Israelis will no longer require proof of vaccination or recovery to enter various venues, and capacity limits at stores, restaurants and other sites will be lifted. There will be no further caps on gatherings, indoors or outdoors.
Only the wearing of face masks indoors and travel restrictions will remain in place for the time being, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said.
Members of the Health Ministry’s national forum for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak said last week that no discussions had been held with experts ahead of the announcement. According to the Kan public broadcaster, one unnamed member of the forum expressed great surprise at the decision and raised questions as to the motives behind it. Others told the outlet that they had only heard about the decision from news reports and suspected there were political motives behind it.
However, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Kan there was nothing untoward about the development, and said that the Health Ministry’s leadership had decided to take the step.
Israel has made dramatic gains in stamping out the virus through its vaccination campaign, driving down the number of daily cases. At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases; as of Sunday evening, there were 398 active infections and 48 people in serious condition.
According to the Health Ministry, over 5.1 million Israelis have received both doses of the vaccine and 92% of Israelis over 50 are fully vaccinated.
The morbidity rates in the country have remained low despite the reopening of most of the economy and of the school system.