Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will hold a special meeting with ministers, health officials and other relevant bodies on Sunday to review Israel’s preparation for handling the deadly new coronavirus, should it arrive in the country, his office said Saturday.
The Prime Minister’s Office noted that the meeting follows similar such deliberations a week ago.
“We aren’t taking any unnecessary chances,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “The virus is already in five continents and 25 countries. We are aware that we cannot fully prevent the virus entering [Israel]. So we are preparing in advance for how to contend with the virus after it first arrives.”
On Saturday some 35 Chinese citizens who arrived in Israel on a flight from Moscow were barred from entering the country and put on a return flight to Russia.
The move comes after authorities barred foreign nationals recently in China from entering Israel as the death toll from the coronavirus originating in the Asian nation continues to rise.
The Ynet news site reported that some Israeli passengers also on the flight from Tel Aviv to Moscow became panicked when they saw the Chinese citizens board the plane with protective face masks and demanded to leave the aircraft, for fear they could contract the illness.
“There was a whole commotion on the plane and it was delayed,” one passenger said.
It was not clear whether any of the passengers eventually deboarded.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Friday barred foreign nationals recently in China from entering Israel by land or sea.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on Thursday announced that Israel will not allow further flights into the country from China amid concerns over the spread of the virus.
Several other nations have introduced similar measures.
Israelis arriving from China will need to be quarantined at home for two weeks.
Israel’s El Al on Thursday joined multiple other airlines in pausing flights to China due to the outbreak of the virus, which has infected nearly 12,000 people in China and caused the deaths of at least 259.
The World Health Organization has declare the outbreak a global emergency and has warned governments need to prepare for “domestic outbreak control” if the disease spreads in their countries.
“The virus is already on five continents and… it is likely only a matter of time until it reaches us,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, tweeted Friday.
The Foreign Ministry said Friday that in light of the WHO announcement, it recommended that Israelis not travel to China until the emergency is declared over and that those in China consider leaving the country.
Most remaining Israelis left Thursday on two flights to Ben Gurion Airport, the ministry said, adding that Israel’s diplomatic missions in China were providing assistance to Israeli citizens still there.
It also said any Israelis in China who wish to return to Israel could still do so by way of a third country.
Israel’s deputy ambassador in Beijing Jonathan Zadka told Channel 12 that families of Israeli diplomats had also left the country.
The vast majority of the coronavirus cases have been in the Hubei province and its provincial capital, Wuhan, where the first illnesses were detected in December. No deaths have been reported outside China.
WHO has said most people who got the illness had milder cases, though 20% experienced severe symptoms. Signs of the new coronavirus include fever and cough and in severe cases, shortness of breath and pneumonia.
Since China informed WHO about the new virus in late December, at least 20 countries have reported cases, as scientists race to understand how exactly the virus is spreading and how severe it is.
Experts say there is significant evidence the virus is spreading among people in China and WHO noted with its emergency declaration Thursday it was especially concerned that some cases abroad also involved human-to-human transmission. It defines an international emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva. “Our greatest concern is the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it.
“This declaration is not a vote of non-confidence in China,” he said. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have the confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater money and resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease reporting requirements on countries.
Japan and Germany also advised against non-essential travel and Britain did as well, except for Hong Kong and Macao. Popular holiday and shopping destination Singapore barred Chinese from traveling there, becoming the first Southeast Asian nation to do so.
Tedros said WHO was not recommending limiting travel or trade to China, where transport links have shut down in places and businesses including Starbucks and McDonald’s temporarily closing hundreds of shops.
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said. He added that Chinese President Xi Jinping had committed to help stop the spread of the virus beyond its borders.
The new virus has now infected more people globally than were sickened during the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, a cousin of the new virus. Both are from the coronavirus family, which also includes those that can cause the common cold.