Amid fears of a new, more contagious strain emerging, the coronavirus cabinet on Monday voted to compel all Israelis entering the country from Wednesday at 2 p.m. to quarantine in state-run hotels, Hebrew-language media reported.
Travelers will need to stay in the hotels for 14 days, which can be reduced to 10 days with two negative coronavirus tests.
If the hotels start to run out of space, the Health Ministry will draw up a plan to prioritize rooms and send others to home isolation.
According to Channel 12 news, anyone returning to Israel from any location over the next 48 hours will need to isolate at home. There had previously been no need to isolate after returning from “green” or low-infection destinations, including Dubai.
Additionally, all foreign nationals will be banned from entering the country. Until now, foreign travelers have been allowed entry into Israel to attend Health Ministry-approved life-cycle events for first-degree relatives, and for several other reasons.
The Channel 12 report said that all arrivals from abroad would be automatically tested for the coronavirus, and anyone found to be carrying the infection would undergo further evaluation to ascertain if it was the new, more contagious strain.
It wasn’t immediately clear how long the cabinet’s decisions would be in effect for.
Speaking after the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the decision, saying, “We have a new epidemic that is spreading, with a virus that we don’t yet understand. This mutation could become coronavirus 2.0.”
Speaking at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset, the prime minister said, “I know this is a difficult decision. We have no choice. I understand the difficulty that it causes families, travelers, to all. But this decision is critical because we must protect your health and lives,”
He said the restrictions would be in place “until we understand the disease.”
Ministers on Sunday imposed a ban on foreign citizen arrivals from Britain, South Africa, and Denmark, while requiring Israelis returning from those countries to quarantine in a state-run hotel.
Health officials are specifically concerned about the new coronavirus strain found in England, which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said data suggests is up to 70 percent more transmissible. Other countries have similarly barred incoming travelers from Britain, which says the new variant is “out of control.”
Earlier on Monday, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash told Army Radio that it was possible the new strain of the virus was already in Israel and that checks were underway to confirm that the vaccines would still work against it.
“It’s possible the British mutation is already here and we’ll do tests to try to identify it,” Ash said. “If the strain is resistant to the vaccine we will conduct an assessment and see how quickly it can be adapted.”
Health Ministry Director-general Chezy Levy defended the timing of authorities’ response to news of the mutated strain, noting that although it had been reported in foreign media a week ago, official data about it was only received in Israel over the weekend.
He told the Radio 103FM station that there is “concern that the mutation is [already] in Israel” but stressed that “there is no evidence” that the vaccine Israel has begun using its mass inoculation program does not work against the new mutation.