Israel delays travel ban to UK and Denmark by 24 hours

Decision will go into effect overnight Thursday to allow more time for Israelis abroad to return, Health Ministry says

Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, November 29, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, November 29, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel will delay by 24 hours its decision to declare the United Kingdom and Denmark as “red,” barring Israelis from traveling there and severely restricting access from those countries, which are facing outbreaks of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked have agreed to postpone the decision so that it will take effect at midnight between Thursday and Friday, according to a Health Ministry statement.

The move had previously been scheduled to take effect at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday, as the government tightened travel restrictions and quarantine requirements due to fears of the new variant.

“The delay is meant to allow the public additional time to prepare, including flying back to Israel, before the decision enters effect,” the ministry said.

Belgium was initially also declared “red” on Sunday afternoon, but the ministry later withdrew that designation, saying the infection rate there did not currently justify a travel ban.

Horowitz said additional countries will be classified as “red” in the coming days, but stressed that the government does not currently plan to bar international travel entirely.

He also urged Israelis to refrain from non-essential travel.

“Whoever is planning to travel abroad at this time needs to know that, upon their return, they are likely to go into full quarantine because the country will be declared a red country,” Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, said during a press briefing on Sunday.

The announcement of the new “red” countries came a day after coalition party leaders agreed to update the list of banned countries daily, a move that could reduce flights abroad by making it difficult to plan trips in advance.

Under new quarantine rules approved Sunday by a Knesset committee, Israelis coming from “red” countries must isolate at a state-run facility for at least 10 days. However, they can be released to their homes to complete their quarantines if they test negative for Omicron.

Horowitz touted the government’s Omicron response during the press briefing, saying Israel was “in a good place” relative to other countries. He credited the measures that the government has imposed for having prevented the country from being hit as hard as others.

“There is a feeling among the public that everything is fine, but we must act now,” he said.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on December 12, 2021. To her right are Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We know for sure that Omicron is much more contagious, spreads at a very high rate, and that whoever is vaccinated with a booster is better protected from serious illness,” Horowitz added.

According to Alroy-Preis, Omicron is more contagious than past variants and is better able to evade vaccines. However, she also noted it has caused fewer fatalities and less severe morbidity than previous COVID-19 outbreaks.

Her assessment mirrored that of the World Health Organization, which said Sunday that Omicron spreads faster than the Delta variant, and reduces vaccine efficacy, but appears to cause less severe symptoms.

Of the 67 Omicron infections so far confirmed in Israel, there has only been one case of someone falling seriously ill — an unvaccinated man who was hospitalized — and no deaths.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a potential lockdown “if we do not take immediate and difficult steps now.” But the prime minister said that “our overarching goal is to keep the Israeli economy as open as possible, without a lockdown, and to do so without reaching hospitals’ limits.”

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 444 coronavirus infections were confirmed Sunday, with 0.52 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases was at 96, and the death toll was at 8,216.

A total of 6,408,565 Israeli have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,790,736 of them having also received a second shot and 4,125,715 of them having received a third.

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