The Israeli cabinet is expected to weigh the addition on Sunday of a number of countries to the “red” no-fly list, including the US, Canada, Germany, and Turkey, as the country braces for a wave of new COVID-19 infections driven by the Omicron variant.
Channel 12 reported Saturday that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was presented with data showing “a significant outbreak” of COVID-19 within three weeks, and that the peak would surpass that of the Delta wave, which started in June.
Bennett is “looking to buy time” to possibly delay the wave of infections by “closing the skies,” according to the TV report.
The full list, which also includes Portugal, Morocco, and Hungary, will be brought for cabinet approval on Sunday. If okayed, these countries will enter the no-fly list by the end of the week.
Israel had already added nine countries earlier this week to the list: the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
Channel 12 noted that with the addition of the new countries, Israel would be “de facto, closing the skies” to Israeli travelers.
Those wanting to travel to “red” list countries will first need to first obtain special permission from a government committee.
Israelis who return from “red” countries will be required to enter quarantine in state-run hotels until their first COVID test comes back negative, after which they can leave, but must remain in home quarantine for seven days, even if they are fully vaccinated.
On Thursday, the cabinet voted to extend the current travel restrictions, including the ban on foreigners entering the country and a requirement for all returning Israelis to quarantine for three days upon entry. The limitations will now last until December 29 at least.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Saturday that the move to expand the list of no-fly countries would be a bid “to buy time, to delay the Omicron wave” but this wave “is coming,” he warned, pointing to the rapid increase of cases in Europe where countries are reimposing restrictions or introducing new ones.
The Omicron variant is “multiplying a worrying rate,” he said. “Given the high transmissibility, the most important thing to do is get vaccinated,” he added.
Channel 12 reported that Horowitz had favored a more measured plan on travel restrictions, but that the list of “red” countries was “a compromise” between the two.
Also Saturday, Professor Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science and a top adviser to the government’s coronavirus cabinet, said that there were still many unknowns about the Omicron variant but that Israel may see “a significant morbidity wave” and “a doubling of cases every two to three days, compared to every 10 days with Delta.”
Segal estimated that the uptick in cases will occur in about 2-3 weeks.
He said that currently available data on Omicron’s severity was “contradictory,” with initial “encouraging” data from South Africa, which raised the alarm about the new variant in late November, offset by data from the UK.
Segal said Israel has been able to buy itself some time, “but the vaccination campaign is virtually treading water,” with more than three million people not fully vaccinated including a million children and another million adults who have yet to receive their booster shots, the third dose of the vaccine.
Horowitz said Saturday that the number of stations near schools where children can get their COVID-19 vaccinations will increase tenfold next week.
“If until now there were 50 locations [outside schools], then it will be 500 next week every day,” Horowitz said, adding that parents were responsible for vaccinating their children.
The Health Ministry was also considering vaccinating the elderly population with a fourth dose, pending further research on such a move, the minister said
“We’ll discuss this week whether to give 4th shot to the elderly population,” Horowitz said.
The Health Ministry said Saturday that 873 new COVID-19 infections were diagnosed on Friday, and another 264 cases were identified Saturday by 6:30 p.m, the highest daily figures in about two months. Some 838 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed Thursday, 45 of which had been confirmed to be of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in Israel to over 130.
Most of the cases were found in people returning from overseas. The ministry did not provide a breakdown for the Friday-Saturday figures.
There were currently 81 patients in serious condition and 41 on ventilators. Most patients in serious condition are over 60 and unvaccinated.
Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million Israelis have received two vaccine doses, and over 4 million have gotten a third booster shot.
The death toll in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232 Saturday evening.