Netanyahu: No sign Pfizer vaccine cannot overcome strain

Entry banned to foreigners from UK; returning Israelis sent to quarantine hotels

130 arrivals on 2 flights taken to hotels for isolation, but 30 refuse to go; decision also affects South Africa, Denmark arrivals, as COVID-19 mutations found in all 3 countries

An EasyJet flight seen taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 24, 2018. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
An EasyJet flight seen taking off from Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 24, 2018. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday approved new measures barring entry to Israel for all foreign citizens arriving from the UK, Denmark and South Africa, in an attempt to prevent the spread of new mutations of the coronavirus that have been recorded in those countries.

The measures also order all Israelis returning from those three countries to enter isolation in state-run quarantine hotels.

All Israeli returnees from those countries will now be required to undergo a coronavirus test. They will need to remain in the hotels for 14 days unless they receive two negative results, which will enable them to leave after 10 days.

Some 130 passengers on two flights from London that landed at Ben Gurion Airport Sunday afternoon were sent to quarantine hotels in accordance with the new measures, with passengers only finding out about the new restrictions upon landing.

The arriving passengers were first taken to an isolated area in the airport terminal, where they underwent coronavirus tests, and were then taken immediately for isolation in the state-run hotels, reports said.

Some 30 of the passengers refused to go to the quarantine hotels, and police were called to the airport to deal with the situation. Eventually about 30 of them boarded flights back to London.

Travelers at the departure hall at Ben Gurion Airport on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

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.”

Outside Britain, nine cases of the new strain have been reported in Denmark, as well as one case in the Netherlands and another in Australia, according to the WHO.

Separately, a severe variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa that could explain the rapid spread of a second wave that affects younger people, the South African health minister said Friday. Known as the 501.V2 Variant, it was identified by South African researchers and details have been sent to the World Health Organization.

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. Non-Israelis from those countries will now not be allowed into the country even in cases that have thus far been exempted.

In addition, the Health Ministry was working to identify individuals in the country who arrived from the UK, Denmark or South Africa in the last two weeks and test them for the coronavirus, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

A man wears a face mask while he walks and is reflected into a puddle in Regent Street, ahead of the new Tier-4 restriction measures, in London, Dec. 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Following Sunday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the new strain appeared to spread faster but was not necessarily more deadly.

“According to the information we have, this mutation spreads much faster than the normal virus but it is not more deadly, and we have no sign that the vaccine we have will not overcome it,” he said, without elaborating. “We are doing everything we can to prevent the mutation from entering Israel. We made a difficult decision today but reality has forced our hand.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu advocated for a more extreme solution that would close Israel’s skies to all international flights. “Stop all flights from all over the world,” he said.

Some cabinet members, including Transportation Minister Miri Regev, objected to Netanyahu’s proposal. “There’s no reason to close the sky,” she said.

Johnson on Saturday announced a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow the spread of the new coronavirus strain. Early data suggests the new strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible,” he said at a televised briefing.

Dr. Gila Rahav, director of the Infectious Diseases Department at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, told the Ynet news site: “The real question is whether the vaccine covers this strain. I imagine that even if it becomes a problem, because the mRNA [technology exists] we would be able to develop a vaccine for this as well.”

A technician collects nasal swab samples for coronavirus testing at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv on November 15, 2020 (Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told Ynet on Sunday that his ministry will recommend that ministers approve the temporary closure of the country’s main international airport.

“We first and foremost need to protect Israel’s borders,” he said. “We apologize to all those who may be harmed by that, but most important is to be safe. With our current woes, we won’t allow additional mutations into the country.”

Asked whether he thought Ben Gurion Airport would close this week to travelers, Edelstein said: “I hope so, because time is critical. What we don’t do immediately, in the coming hours, will be too late to do later.”

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy signed an order on Friday that orders returning travelers from all countries into mandatory quarantine, effective December 26. That, however, was largely aimed at the tens of thousands of Israelis who traveled to Dubai in recent weeks.

Israel’s vaccine drive officially began on Sunday morning, with healthcare workers, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff receiving the coronavirus shot throughout the day.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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