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Health Ministry urges ban on travel to 7 high-risk countries, including India

Ministry recommends requiring vaccinated travelers arriving from COVID hotspots to quarantine, and delaying relaunch of Israel’s tourism program

Passengers seen at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Flash90)
Passengers seen at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8, 2021. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Tuesday recommended new travel restrictions for Israelis, which would ban travel to seven high-risk countries including India, and force even vaccinated travelers to enter quarantine upon their return to Israel.

The ministry was also seeking to delay the launch of Israel’s tourism program by another month and force non-citizens entering Israel from the specified highly infected countries to self-isolate in quarantine hotels.

In the face of an insidious new COVID variant devastating India, the Health Ministry has recommended the government divide countries into two groups: Level 1 and high-risk Level 2.

In his proposal, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein asked the government to ban travel to Level 2 countries, and to require all travelers returning to Israel from those countries to quarantine for two weeks, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19.

Furthermore, foreigners permitted to travel from Level 2 countries to Israel will be forced to isolate at government-run COVID hotels, according to the ministry’s recommendations.

The government will debate the ministry’s proposal in a cabinet meeting, the date of which was not announced.

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, Sikh place of worship, inside a car in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

So far, Israel has issued a travel warning for seven countries: India, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey.

All seven will be considered Level 2 countries if the ministry’s recommendations come into effect. And all travelers who have visited Level 2 countries in the 14 days prior to entering Israel will be subjected to new isolation rules.

The ministry said it will determine which countries receive a Level 2 designation based on criteria established by its Information and Knowledge Center. Criteria will take into account variables such as the number of Israelis arriving from countries considered high risk, and evidence of the presence of coronavirus variants there.

This list will be updated every two weeks, and the ministry will announce which countries they are considering adding ahead of time, so travelers can prepare accordingly.

For Level 1 countries — most of the world — there will be no change in policy.

Orit Farkash-Hacohen. (Yanai Yechiel)

These proposed travel restrictions come as Israel plans to reopen its borders to tourists in a program starting late May. The Health Ministry has recommended delaying the launch of the program by another month.

But on Tuesday, the same day the ministry issued its recommendations, Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen broadcasted that steps were in place to welcome organized tourist groups and open Israel’s tourism economy, according to Channel 12 News.

Vaccinated tourist groups are set to be allowed into Israel starting May 23, as long as they provide a negative PCR test before travel and a serological test upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport shows they have antibodies.

Israelis take part in a gay pride rally after the annual parade was canceled due to the coronavirus, at Independence Park in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Farkash-Hacohen said the ministry was set to launch a campaign in Dubai, New York, and London to encourage tourism to Israel, according to Channel 12. Several events have been arranged to attract tourists, too, such as a bicycle race held in the UAE and Israel titled the “Abraham Accord Cup,” named after the normalization deal between the two countries, and Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade.

According to the network, Farkash-Hacohen is not worried about the Indian variant: “If we work in a managed and supervised way, it should not affect anything. It shouldn’t prevent the opening of the tourism industry because we can make a plan for the long term — and if we are not on the field we lose a relative advantage,” she said.

On Monday, Health Ministry officials called for all direct flights from India to be temporarily halted, according to Channel 13 News, fearing the spread of the variant ravaging the country.

India recorded more than 320,000 new cases of coronavirus infections Tuesday. The health ministry also reported another 2,771 deaths in the past 24 hours, with roughly 115 Indians succumbing to the disease every hour. The latest fatalities pushed India’s official death toll to 197,894, though the actual number is likely to be greater.

Multiple funeral pyres of victims of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for mass cremation in New Delhi, India, April 24, 2021. (Altaf Qadri/AP)

Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said in a statement Sunday that it had approached the health and foreign ministries asking for approval to immediately send a consignment of aid equipment and manpower to India to assist with the crisis.

“In my opinion, this is the correct and moral thing to do at this time,” said Ichilov Hospital director Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s former coronavirus czar.

Former coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We cannot have the time of our lives while, on the other side of the world, they are burning bodies,” Gamzu said, referring to Israel’s success at bringing down its own infection rates and moves to roll back restrictions on public life as it returns to normalcy.

Talks on the matter were held at the Foreign Ministry, as well as with Indian officials, but so far no decision has been made, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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