Israel will 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 will remain prohibited, Hebrew media reported Monday.
The reports on Channel 13 and 12, citing a Health Ministry committee, said that the panel had recommended removing 54 countries from the list of destinations deemed “red” and requiring special permission to fly to or from.
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 Monday.
There was no official confirmation.
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.
“The moment infections are spreading, there is no point in stopping entry from abroad,” Horowitz told the Kan public broadcaster in an interview. “The opening of [Israel’s] skies won’t take much time, possibly next week.”
Experts have increasingly questioned the sense of Israel’s travel rules given the likelihood that the Omicron variant is already inside the country’s borders.
On Saturday, 112 people entered the country carrying the virus, according to Health Ministry statistics.
At the end of November, Israel closed its borders to foreign nationals in an attempt to hold off the variant, and has since expanded its list of “red” countries. Nearly 70 countries have already been deemed high-risk by Israel, including the United States, Turkey, and most of Europe and Africa.
The Health Ministry said Saturday that the vast majority of the 1,118 confirmed Omicron infections in Israel were detected among travelers returning from abroad. Travel for Israeli citizens to high-risk countries is forbidden unless they are granted special permission from an exemptions committee.
The cabinet is also set to significantly ease quarantine rules, reports claimed.
Channel 12 said that a rule requiring a vaccinated person exposed to Omicron to quarantine for a week, pending two negative tests, or two weeks for the unvaccinated, will likely be rescinded.
Instead, fully vaccinated individuals will be exempt from any quarantine, no matter if their contact was infected with Omicron or not. However, if the Omicron carrier they were exposed to is a member of their household, the vaccinated person will still need to quarantine for seven days, the report said.
The US on Monday also halved its recommendations for quarantine and isolation.
In his interview Sunday, Horowitz also said that the Health Ministry and the government were discussing the option of canceling the current mandatory quarantine for vaccinated individuals who come into contact with a confirmed Omicron patient.
Both Kan and Channel 12 news cited health experts anticipating that if the current rules on the matter remain in place, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will be isolating within a few weeks, amounting to an “effective lockdown.”
As of Sunday, some 85,000 Israelis were in quarantine, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The television networks cited experts saying that number will likely double within a week, and that in two or three weeks, it could reach 600,000-800,000.
While early studies suggest Omicron may not produce symptoms as severe as the less-transmissible Delta variant, experts in Israel say that due to the rate at which the virus is spreading in the country, the sheer number of cases will still likely cause a burden on hospitals.
Officials were preparing for a possible scenario in which 50% of the country’s workforce would soon be in quarantine, fearing shortages in vital goods and services.
The government has made vaccination its central strategy for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are currently available for all people in Israel aged 5 and up.
According to Health Ministry figures Sunday, out of Israel’s population of roughly 9.5 million, 6,504,631 have had a least one vaccine shot, of which 5,879,056 have had two doses, and 4,194,405 have also had a third, or booster, shot.
The Health Ministry said over 2,000 new coronavirus cases were diagnosed on Monday.
Health officials had identified 2,007 new infections by Monday evening, with the number expected to rise further by the end of the day.
The last time more than 2,000 new cases were recorded in a day was October 10, when 2,343 new cases were confirmed. On Sunday, there were 1,794 new cases.
Serious patients remained steady, dropping slightly from the 87 reported on Monday morning to 84. The positive test rate was 1.9 percent.
In total, 134 patients are hospitalized, out of over 14,000 active cases nationwide, but authorities expect that to change quickly.