Israel sharply cut the number of “red” countries on its no-fly list from 69 to 15, but key destinations like the US, Canada and the UK remain prohibited. The changes went into effect at midnight Tuesday.
The decision was taken by the so-called coronavirus cabinet in a telephone vote, accepting the recommendations of a Health Ministry committee, and removing 54 countries from the list of destinations deemed “red” and requiring special permission to fly to or from.
Among the destinations removed from the red list were much of Africa, Belgium, Italy, Ireland, Germany, and the Scandinavian nations. They would now be classified as “orange” countries, with a travel warning, but no formal restrictions.
However, the US, UK, Canada, France, UAE, Switzerland, South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Turkey would remain on the no-go list, along with Mexico, which was added on Tuesday.
The planned changes come after Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that with the Omicron strain quickly spreading throughout the country and driving a renewed COVID-19 outbreak Israel would soon remove many restrictions on airline travel to and from the country that were imposed to slow the new strain’s arrival.
There was no indication when or if the government was planning to lift the restrictions on the remaining nations.
The cabinet also approved further restrictions on school study. Elementary school children who have a classmate test positive will move to either outdoor or distance learning.
The new regulations come as the Health Ministry on Tuesday announced the death of a woman from a suspected Omicron infection, and confirmed over 600 more cases of the new coronavirus variant.
The woman had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and had received a booster shot, according to a ministry statement.
If verified, the woman would be the first Omicron fatality recorded in Israel. A reported death from Omicron last week was later clarified to have been caused by the Delta strain of coronavirus.
The Health Ministry statement said 623 new Omicron cases were confirmed in the past day, bringing the number of Omicron infections since the variant was first detected in Israel to 1,741.
According to the ministry, two unvaccinated people were in serious condition from Omicron infections, including one hooked up to a ventilator.
It said another six people were hospitalized with less serious bouts, four of whom were vaccinated.
Over 1,000 of the confirmed Omicron carriers came from abroad, the Health Ministry added.
Israel has seen a surge in infections since the emergence of Omicron, with new COVID cases hitting a three-month high on Monday.
The Health Ministry said Tuesday that over 2,000 more cases were confirmed since midnight, pushing active infections past 16,000. It also reported a further increase in the positive test rate, in another sign that the spread of the virus was accelerating.
Despite the rising morbidity figures, there has not been a spike in hospitalizations and serious cases, which remained steady at 84 on Tuesday evening. The national death toll from the pandemic stood at 8,243.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced a change in the quarantine regulations for those exposed to a COVID patient, amid concerns that Omicron’s spread would require an increasingly high number of Israelis to self-isolate.
Under the new guidelines, fully vaccinated people exposed to any variant of the coronavirus will be required to quarantine only until they get negative results from a PCR test. Once released, they will not be allowed to enter mass events or places with high-risk populations, like nursing homes, for the following 10 days. Until now, fully-vaccinated Israelis did not have to quarantine following exposure to a COVID patient, but did if it was suspected to be Omicron.
Unvaccinated individuals will need to quarantine for seven days with tests on the first and last days.
Presenting the new rules, Bennett said that without the change, Israel would be put in a “de facto lockdown.”
“We saw what was happening abroad and understood that if we stuck to what we were doing with regards to quarantine policy… we would have been in a de facto lockdown of 1 to 2 million people,” he told reporters.
He claimed the controversial move to curtail travel by keeping Israelis in the country and foreign nationals from being able to visit bought five weeks of breathing room before the expected Omicron onslaught, and will allow the economy to keep humming.
“This gave us an advantage over other countries, which are fighting Omicron and Delta at the same time. The alternative was to act like the Netherlands, with a full lockdown,” Bennett said.
Despite the fact that he himself wrote a book titled “How to Defeat a Pandemic” while in the opposition last year, sources close to the premier said there was “no guidebook” on dealing with COVID, defending his handling of the crisis.
They said he would rather receive criticism for being too aggressive in fighting the pandemic than risk public health.
“Our goal is to leave the economy open and markets open and stores open as much as possible, while avoiding stretching hospitals beyond capacity. If we wanted, we could have locked down, but nobody wants to get to a de facto lockdown by calling it another name,” Bennett said.
He also confirmed that Israel is slated to receive an initial shipment of the first approved anti-COVID drug from Pfizer on Wednesday, which Bennett said will make it the first country outside the United States to get the therapy.
The Health Ministry granted emergency approval Sunday to the oral antiviral pill Paxlovid, which has shown a nearly 90 percent reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to suffer severe illness.
Lab tests have shown it to be very effective against Omicron.