Cabinet to okay mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, ending bungled policy
Defense Ministry to take full responsibility for arrivals

Cabinet to okay mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, ending bungled policy

Passengers have for days been allowed to enter Israel unchecked, take taxis home, despite PM’s repeated instructions; now, all arrivals will enter state-controlled isolation

Israeli travelers enjoy a celebratory arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, March 23, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli travelers enjoy a celebratory arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, March 23, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday will approve emergency regulations to enable the government to compel all arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport to enter mandatory state-controlled quarantine, to prevent the spread of coronavirus by those coming from abroad, the Prime Minister’s Office said Saturday night.

The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying the prime minister had agreed that the Defense Ministry would take full responsibility for the matter henceforth.

All arrivals will be housed at state-run quarantine hotels for 14 days to ensure they are not infected.

In light of the new agreements, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the few flights still coming to Israel would resume after they were frozen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday morning until the issue of quarantine was addressed.

The new action came after ongoing reports that Netanyahu’s instructions last week that all incoming passengers to Israel be quarantined was not being followed, and that arrivals on numerous flights were being allowed to enter the country and go home, sometimes via taxi, without being required to enter state-overseen quarantine or even having their temperatures checked.

Government officials have in recent days pointed to legal problems with enforcing the decision, and on Saturday sources in the PMO told Hebrew media that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had limited the government’s ability to compel arrivals to enter quarantine facilities. A Health Ministry official made similar claims to the Times of Israel on Friday.

But an incensed Mandelblit issued a statement Saturday evening calling the claim “lies and falsehoods.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (FLASH90)

His office said he “did not delay or prevent the government from taking necessary measures, as was claimed with regard to isolation of persons returning from overseas.”

It said Mandelblit had approved the original measure for the quarantine of arrivals on April 2 and had agreed that it was “an important and effective tool to deal with the spread of coronavirus by those arriving from abroad.” It said he had only been submitted with a request for tougher measures on Saturday and was now reviewing them.

On Saturday morning, some 70 passengers on a United Airlines flight from the virus-stricken New York area arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and were allowed to travel home in taxis without having their temperatures checked or filling in forms detailing where they would be quarantined for the requisite 14 days.

A Health Ministry source told The Times of Israel on Friday that passengers who could prove they could self-isolate were being allowed to leave the airport independently and return to their homes, while those who could not, were being sent to state-supervised hotels for a 14-day quarantine period.

The official said that while the ministry would prefer for all passengers to be sent to hotels, complications deriving from a legal opinion submitted by the attorney general were preventing that from happening.

According to data from the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, a government body of researchers that serves as an advisory group to the Health Ministry and the Home Front Command, approximately one-third of infections in Israel are in people who have returned from abroad, Channel 12 reported. The report noted that many of those cases were people traveling from New York.

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport on March 11, 2020 (Flash90)

The Saturday morning flight had received exceptional approval from authorities to land in Israel despite the current lockdown. According to Channel 13 news, only seven out of around 80 passengers on the New York flight were taken to quarantine hotels.

A Health Ministry official told Channel 13 news on Saturday that “the continued arrival of flights from New York and failure to transfer passengers to [specially designated] hotels is negligent.”

“All landings must be transferred to the hotels, which are mostly empty. People landing at Ben Gurion Airport refuse to move to hotels, and right now there is no real desire to force them as emergency regulations allow,” the unnamed official said.

Current procedure at Ben Gurion Airport is supposed to be that upon arrival, passengers have their temperature checked by Magen David Adom ambulance service personnel and fill out a questionnaire about their health and who they have been in contact with.

Health Ministry representatives are then supposed to hand a list of those passengers who were found to be at risk, or who did not sign a self-isolation guarantee, to the Home Front Command, which is then responsible for transporting those persons to a designated quarantine hotel. The hotels are also under the responsibility of the Home Front Command.

The Defense Ministry had previously cited “legal and procedural complications,” that prevented it from sending all incoming passengers to quarantine and only enabled it to send to quarantine hotels those passengers who have not signed a declaration that they have an independent arrangement for self-isolation.

In late March, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett presented a plan for mandatory quarantine of all arrivals. However, he later acknowledged that the plan had been shelved.

People wear face masks arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

On April 1, a day after Bennett’s acknowledgment, Netanyahu reinstated the plan to require all arrivals from abroad to be quarantined in a hotel or other designated facility for 14 days.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office at the time said that the policy was effective immediately. Netanyahu promised in a national broadcast that it would be implemented right away, but passengers have continued to arrive in Israel and head home independently.

The Ynet website reported Thursday that incoming passengers on a United Airlines flight from New Jersey that landed earlier that day, in the midst of a particularly stringent nationwide closure imposed for the start of Passover, and traveled home by taxi, despite an explicit prohibition on moving between towns.

One passenger told the website that he had signed the self-isolation guarantee although he did not in fact have any arrangement in place for the quarantine period.

“I still don’t know where I’ll go into self-isolation,” he said. “But first I’ll go home and then I’ll figure it out.”

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