Green passport hope dashed? Israel weighs post-flight isolation for vaccinees

Israel had started to exempt immunized people from quarantine, but as part of all-out bid to stop the spread of virus variants, government is now ‘reevaluating whole issue’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel may start subjecting vaccinated people returning to the country to quarantine, a senior health official said Monday, floating a policy shift that would undermine the much-touted notion of a “green passport.”

Israel had been among the nations most enthusiastic regarding the possibility of a certificate that would allow quarantine-free travel for vaccinated people. But the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus in recent weeks has led to a sea change in government thinking.

The main Health Ministry concern is that vaccines may fail to protect people from getting sick with some variants — a worry that has not been definitively confirmed or disproven. It is also not known for certain whether vaccinated people can carry and transmit the virus, even if they don’t get sick.

After days of rumors, on Monday Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, updated a Knesset committee on the matter of quarantine exemptions for people who arrive in Israel. She said that the new circumstances mean “we’re now in a situation of needing to reevaluate this whole issue.”

She added, “Currently, those who return from abroad and are vaccinated, are not required to isolate, but a reexamination is needed.”

Ichilov hospital team members wearing protective gear as they work at the coronavirus department of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, on January 01, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Such a shift would not much impact incoming tourism, which has been virtually nonexistent for much of the past year, with travel into the country mostly limited to citizens. But it will dash the hopes of many Israelis to more freely travel overseas once their vaccine immunity kicks in.

Last week Israel largely shuttered Ben Gurion Airport, and it will remain that way until at least Sunday. The government has been increasing its precautionary measures in recent weeks in order to curb the highly infectious British and South African variants of the coronavirus.

According to several reports Saturday, the Health Ministry is also considering temporarily canceling the exemption from quarantine for vaccinees after contact with a confirmed carrier. Given the still-high infection rates, officials may err on the side of caution and revoke exemptions for a time.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

Some doctors are urging the Health Ministry to consider other options. Epidemiologist Nadav Davidovitch, a leader of Israel’s doctors union, told The Times of Israel, “I think we still need to have an open discussion with all stakeholders and see what alternatives there are.”

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