Ministers were set to vote Monday on a proposal to shut down all air travel to and from Israel in an attempt to prevent the spread of a new strain of the coronavirus, as senior health officials said it was possible the variant was already present in the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the opening of the cabinet meeting that he was in favor of shutting down all inbound and outbound international flights.
“I intend to close the skies as quickly as possible, like in the the first wave [of the pandemic],” Netanyahu said. “Foreign nationals will not enter the country. The mutation is spreading all over the world and we are testing its significance.”
Until now, foreign travelers have been allowed entry into Israel only to attend Health Ministry-approved life-cycle events for first-degree relatives, and for several other reasons.
The proposal to shut down all air travel was opposed on Sunday by Transportation Minister Miri Regev as well as a number of unnamed ministers from the Blue and White party.
Channel 12 news reported that as a result, an alternative plan was being formulated whereby all Israeli travelers from abroad would be compelled to quarantine in designated state-run hotels.
If the plan to block all inbound and outbound flights is approved, it won’t go into effect for 48 hours to allow Israelis who are currently abroad to return home.
In leaks from the meeting reported by the Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu asked what would happen with returning travelers in that period.
Regev reportedly responded that only those from countries designated as high infection areas would be required to quarantine.
However Netanyahu responded that he wanted the matter examined to see if all travelers arriving in Israel before the proposed shutdown of flights could be forced to self-isolate, no matter where they came from.
According to Channel 12 news, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz proposed that Israelis should be prevented from flying back into the country.
“In my opinion, if Israelis continue to fly home, there is a high chance that the mutation will arrive here. At the moment, we are only slowing down its rate of arrival,” Steinitz reportedly said.
However, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri was said to have vehemently opposed the suggestion.
“The Jewish state cannot prevent Jews from returning home,” he said.
Ministers on Sunday imposed a ban on foreign citizen arrivals from Britain, South Africa, and Denmark, while also requiring Israelis returning from those countries to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel.
Health officials are specifically concerned about the new coronavirus strain found in England, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said data suggests is up to 70 percent more transmissible. Other countries have similarly barred incoming travelers from Britain, which says the new variant is “out of control.”
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Army Radio that is was possible the new strain of the virus was already in Israel and that checks were underway to confirm that the vaccines would still work against it.
“It’s possible the British mutation is already here and we’ll do tests to try to identify it,” Ash said. “If the strain is resistant to the vaccine we will conduct an assessment and see how quickly it can be adapted.”
Health Ministry Director-general Chezy Levy on Monday defended the timing of authorities’ response to news of the mutated strain, noting that although it had been reported in foreign media already a week ago, official data about it was only received in Israel over the weekend.
He told the Radio 103FM station that there is “concern that the mutation is [already] in Israel” but stressed that “there is no evidence” that the vaccine Israel has begun using its mass inoculation program does not work against the new mutation.
Nonetheless, the coronavirus cabinet was discussing the option of closing down international travel to and from the country because of the mutation, Levy said, due to the difficulty of keeping tabs on where in the world travelers have been before they arrive in the country.
Levy also said that the cabinet would tighten restrictions in Israel and that it was “very possible” there would be a third national lockdown, a plan reportedly backed by Netanyahu, as the percentage of coronavirus tests that came back confirming infection reached its highest value in nearly a week, according to Health Ministry figures released Monday morning.
Of 69,649 tests returned on Sunday, 4.1% were positive, continuing a trend that has seen the percentage rising almost every day since last Tuesday.
There were 2,846 new virus cases diagnosed Sunday and the death toll rose to 3,109. Of the 25,159 active patients in the country, 470 are in serious condition, according to the ministry numbers. Since the start of virus outbreak earlier this year there have been 376,857 cases diagnosed.
Levy said that health officials had told ministers on Sunday that simply applying tighter restraints on public life would likely not prevent the eventual need for a full lockdown due to the high infection rates.
The essential difference between tightened restraints and full lockdown is that the latter would also impact the education system and limit the movement. Previous lockdowns have seen citizens restricted to just a few hundred meters from their home unless for vital tasks.
At the meeting, opinions on a lockdown were largely divided between Likud ministers who were in favor, and their Blue and White coalition partners who preferred to try restraints first, with the aim of reducing the impact on the economy and already rampant unemployment caused by earlier virus restrictions that shut down many businesses.
The shaky relationship between the coalition partners, which is teetering on the verge of a collapse that will prompt elections, could also influence the length of a lockdown, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.
Unidentified ministers told the station that Netanyahu would be interested in stretching out the lockdown to bring down infection numbers as much a possible by a potential election day in order to reap the political benefits of a victory against the virus.
Two previous lockdowns, the first in April and the second in September, succeeded in bringing down virus infection numbers but the outbreak again ballooned as the restrictions were rolled back.
On Sunday Israel launched its mass vaccination program based on the Pfizer/BioNTech inoculation. The government hopes to vaccinate some 60,000 people a day and as many as two million Israelis by the end of January, beginning with medical workers and those over 60, both considered high-risk groups.