Israel set to reopen Sunday to some vaccinated tourists; US and UK still out

Recommendations subject to Knesset committee approval; quarantine for vaccinated returning Israelis to be shortened

Travelers arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, on December 22, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, on December 22, 2021. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Monday that it would allow fully vaccinated tourists from some countries to enter Israel starting Sunday, January 9, ending an almost-blanket ban on noncitizens arriving.

Foreign travelers who have not been vaccinated or recovered will still not be permitted to enter Israel. Visitors from countries on the Health Ministry’s “red” no-fly list are also still barred from coming.

Israel reopened to foreign tourism in early November, for the first time since the start of the pandemic, but at the end of that month once again banned foreign travelers in a bid to slow the entry of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.

The Health Ministry on Monday recommended that Canada, France, South Africa, Hungary, Nigeria, Spain and Portugal be removed from its list of “red” countries. Travel to and from the United States and United Kingdom remains forbidden.

The newly shortened list is subject to approval by the Knesset Health Committee. There was no indication when the government was planning to lift the restrictions on the remaining nations.

Previously, Israel accepted vaccination certificates for Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or China’s Sinovac or Sinopharm vaccines. Those vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V needed to undergo a serology test, which detects antibodies, to ensure they were protected. It was not immediately clear whether this policy would continue.

The decision to allow tourists back into the country comes despite Israel grappling with the swift rise of Omicron, but as officials seem to have largely come to terms with the highly contagious but milder strain of the virus spreading rapidly through the population.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry also recommended that vaccinated and recovered Israeli travelers who have returned from countries defined as “orange” will no longer need to quarantine for three days upon their return to Israel and instead will have to isolate only until they receive the results of a PCR test administered upon landing. That decision is also subject to committee approval.

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged Sunday that the lifting of travel restrictions may seem counterintuitive. But he explained that when there were fewer active infections in the country, the spread of the virus from abroad had a much more significant effect on morbidity. When there were already tens of thousands of cases in Israel, another 50 infections among travelers from overseas were “meaningless,” he said.

The easing of travel restrictions comes with Israel experiencing a surge of infections driven by the Omicron strain. The Health Ministry said Monday that 6,562 cases were confirmed the previous day — well over triple the number of a week earlier.

In addition to Sunday’s cases, a further 2,305 diagnoses since midnight pushed active infections past 37,000.

There were 110 patients in serious condition as of Monday morning, with 45 of them defined as critical. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

Cars line up at a drive-through COVID-19 testing center in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the transmission rate also continued its steady rise, reaching 1.88. The transmission rate, or R number, representing the average number of people infected by each virus carrier, is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the pandemic is spreading.

With the testing system starting to buckle under the strain of rising infections and massive lines seen throughout the country, 4.83 percent of tests carried out on Sunday came back positive, another sign that the spread of the virus was accelerating.

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