Government to vote on immediately suspending all passenger flights for two weeks

Airport to close for 14 days, pending cabinet approval Sunday, as Israel fears import of virus mutations

Passengers wearing full protective suits and masks to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic push their luggage trolleys at the departures area at Ben Gurion Airport on January 19, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Passengers wearing full protective suits and masks to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic push their luggage trolleys at the departures area at Ben Gurion Airport on January 19, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek government approval on Sunday for his proposal to suspend all passenger flights to and from Israel for two weeks, due to growing fears over more infectious coronavirus variants.

Netanyahu held a meeting Saturday night with officials from the Health Ministry, the Transportation Ministry, the National Security Council, and the Civil Aviation Authority where an initial agreement was reached to essentially halt almost all flights “to prevent the entry into Israel of additional coronavirus mutations,” according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The agreement, subject to cabinet approval, includes banning all incoming and outgoing flights, restricting arrival to Ben Gurion International Airport, and formulating a separate plan to allow special flights for humanitarian purposes.

People needing to travel may be allowed to do so “in exceptional circumstances” that would require the approval of a committee headed by the directors-general of the health and transportation ministries, according to the PMO announcement.

The proposal will be submitted for cabinet approval on Sunday.

The statement said the restrictions will come into force once approved by the government, though it was not immediately clear if a majority of ministers will back them.

An almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

The travel ban is set to apply to everyone, when those fully vaccinated, according to an earlier report by Channel 12 news on Saturday. Some Health Ministry officials are suggesting the airport only reopen fully when at least 5 million Israelis have been vaccinated, according to the report, a scenario that may be reached by early March.

Channel 13 reported that the Health Ministry is asking the government to approve the use of advanced surveillance tools to track Israelis returning from overseas meanwhile.

Israel is in the midst of a third nationwide lockdown as it seeks to curb COVID-19 infections while closely watching mutated strains and undertaking a massive vaccination campaign.

On Saturday, a military-led task force warned of the potential emergence of a mutated Israeli variant of the coronavirus. In a report for the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center, Military Intelligence recommended that due to fears over the possible development of an Israeli strain, those who have received vaccines or recovered from COVID-19 be tested for the coronavirus and be subject to quarantine requirements upon entering the country.

“The mass vaccine campaign taking place parallel to the active outbreak in Israel may lead to ‘evolutionary pressure’ on the virus,” the report read.

A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Israel’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said health officials estimate the British coronavirus variant is behind 30%-40% of current infections in Israel and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks. The mutated strain of the virus is more infectious, though it is not considered more deadly.

The country has taken a number of additional steps in recent days aimed at curbing the infections, including raising fines on rule-breakers and increasing limitations on international flights still allowed in.

Starting on Sunday, arrivals from abroad will not be allowed into the country without a negative COVID-19 test carried out within 72 hours of their flight, Channel 13 reported earlier Saturday. Currently, travelers are not obligated to be tested when flying in, though they are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Travelers presently have the option of being tested at the airport after landing to shorten their quarantine time to 10 days.

Airlines flying into Ben Gurion Airport have been notified not to allow passengers onto flights to Israel if they do not have valid negative tests in hand, the report said.

The government is also expected to approve raising fines Monday on those who defy health regulations: The fine for businesses that open against the rules will double from NIS 5,000 ($1,500) to NIS 10,000 ($3,000). The fines for educational institutions that open illegally and weddings and parties held against the rules will be set at NIS 20,000 ($6,000), the Channel 13 report said.

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