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Bennett backs ‘automatic fines’ for travelers who don’t take 2 COVID tests

PM, health officials agree to impose NIS 2,500 penalty on returning Israelis who aren’t tested an additional time under tightened quarantine rules aimed at curbing Omicron spread

Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Arriving travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday appeared to back an extension of new quarantine requirements for vaccinated Israelis arriving from abroad, agreeing to push for fines of thousands of shekels levied against travelers who do not comply with the new rules.

Amid concerns over the Omicron coronavirus variant, the government this week ordered immunized Israelis coming from abroad to quarantine for at least three days and then take a second COVID-19 test, in addition to a test upon arrival.  Israelis not listed as immunized must spend at least seven days in quarantine before taking a test to get out of isolation. Only those with negative results may exit quarantine.

Amid reports of uneven compliance, officials agreed Thursday to put teeth behind the rules, levying fines of NIS 2,500 ($790) to Israelis who do not get tested on the third or seventh day of quarantine, Bennett’s office said in a statement following a meeting between the premier, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and senior government officials.

The statement said the Health Ministry and Israel Police will “synchronize their information systems” to enable the fines to be issued “automatically,” though it was unclear how long it would take to implement the cross-check data system or whether it would survive a legal challenge.

The statement also indicated Bennett and other participants in the meeting will seek to extend the new quarantine rules, which are currently due to expire on December 7.

“The decision will enter into effect in a number of weeks with the completion of the technical preparations for its implementation,” the premier’s office said.

Before the meeting, a report said Bennett and health officials would discuss easing travel restrictions, including possibly scrapping the longer quarantine rules for the vaccinated. Israel has also sealed its borders to non-nationals in a bid to prevent Omicron’s spread.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a Hanukkah event in Jerusalem on November 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It was not immediately clear how many ministers would back the fines announced by Bennett’s office. Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton called earlier in the day for ending the tougher quarantine rules on the vaccinated, amid early indications that immunization protects against the highly-mutated variant.

The Prime Minister’s Office also said Thursday that officials agreed to pilot the “vaccinated community” program, which would include a messaging campaign to encourage inoculation among children and the dispatching of mobile vaccination units to schools and community centers.

The PMO statement said the program would begin in a number of regional councils next week, without elaborating.

Israel has so far confirmed three Omicron cases and is examining a few dozen infections suspected of being caused by the mutated coronavirus strain, which the World Health Organization has categorized as a “variant of concern” following its initial detection in South Africa last month.

Earlier Thursday, Bennett and Horowitz announced the government would not move to extend a controversial surveillance program tracking the phones of people who contracted the Omicron variant, while keeping the door open to bringing back the tool at a later date.

The move followed intense public criticism of the decision to enlist the Shin Bet security agency to use invasive technology as part of contact tracing efforts.

Israelis, some wearing face masks, shop at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, December 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The surveillance program, which was first rolled out last year during the early months of the pandemic, has faced criticism from privacy and rights groups but was praised by officials as helping to stem the spread of the virus by providing the government with the ability to notify Israelis if they were in contact with confirmed virus carriers.

The return of the phone tracking was okayed by the government on Sunday and required Knesset approval to be extended. However, there did not appear to be sufficient support for an extension after several ministers and coalition MKs opposed reviving the program.

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