Israel is set to take fresh steps to attempt to curb COVID-19 infections, including raising fines on rule-breakers and increasing limitations on international flights, according to a report Friday night.
According to Channel 13, the government is 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 report said.
Furthermore, 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. 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 network further reported that the government is considering halting flights from certain high-risk locations entirely, with one prominent example being the United Arab Emirates, a country with which Israel only recently established diplomatic ties.
Denmark on Friday suspended all commercial air traffic from the UAE for five days over concerns that its pre-flight COVID-19 tests were not rigorous enough. The UAE has said it is in contact with Danish authorities to “clarify the details” of the concerns.
Meanwhile Israel’s health maintenance organizations have announced that as of Saturday night, Israelis aged 16-18 can set an appointment to be vaccinated — conditional on parental approval. Currently, Israel is vaccinating people aged 40 and above.
The vaccination of the teens is intended to allow them to return to schools and take their “bagrut” matriculation exams on schedule.
The Health Ministry on Friday reported a further decline in daily coronavirus infections the day before, as Israel’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began appeared to ease after weeks of strict lockdown rules.
According to the ministry, 7,099 new cases were confirmed Thursday, after peaking at over 10,100 earlier in the week. The total number of infections recorded in Israel reached 589,028 on Friday. The death toll stood at 4,266.
The ministry said there were 79,942 active cases, with 1,822 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Of those, 1,182 were in serious condition.
A record 223,560 vaccine doses were also administered Thursday, as Israel charged forward with its national vaccination drive. Ministry figures showed 2,461,911 have received the first vaccine dose and 899,315 of them the second.
Israel is leading the world in vaccination on a per capita basis, according to the Oxford-based Our World in Data.
To encourage vaccination, the government is planning to issue “green passports,” which will allow those who are vaccinated or who have recovered from the virus to attend large gatherings and cultural venues. The immunized will also be exempt from quarantine requirements.
Health officials have attributed much of the recent surge in infections to COVID variants, particularly a strain that originated in the United Kingdom, which the head of the Health Ministry’s public health services division said Thursday was putting pregnant women at greater risk of developing serious symptoms.
The variants are believed to be more infectious. And the British government’s chief scientific adviser said Friday there is some evidence that the UK variant carries a slightly higher risk of death than the original strain — though he stressed that the data is uncertain.
Patrick Vallance told a news conference that for people over 60 with the original version of the virus, “the average risk is that for 1,000 people who got infected, roughly 10 would be expected to unfortunately die. With the new variant, for 1,000 people infected, roughly 13 or 14 people might be expected to die.”
He said there is growing conviction that the variant is more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain. He said it appears to be between 30% and 70% more easily passed on.
“I don’t think this virus is going anywhere,” he said. “It’s going to be around, probably, forever,” Vallance said.
Asked about the report, a top Israeli expert said that the UK variant will make it much more difficult for the country to reach herd immunity.
Prof. Gili Regev of the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan told Channel 12 that instead of being able to achieve herd immunity after vaccinating between 60% to 75% of the population, Israel would now possibly have to vaccinate more than 75% and possibly even 90%.
“We are a long way from the end of this pandemic,” said Regev, but noted that Israel was ending the first phase of the struggle with COVID-19.
Regev said that her hospital had noted a “significant” drop in infections and a jump in antibodies in those who had received a second dose and anticipated that this would start to impact virus numbers in the coming weeks.
On Thursday, Israel’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash predicted health officials won’t request another extension of the third nationwide lockdown beyond its January 31 end date.
Ash noted that the pandemic’s basic reproduction number, or R-number, which is the number of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, now stood at 0.99 — the first time it was lower than 1 in nearly three months. Any figure below 1 means the outbreak is slowing.
The tightened lockdown measures now in force had been set to expire Thursday night, but ministers agreed to extend the restrictions for 10 more days.