Israel to toughen border inspections in effort to block entry of coronavirus

Health minister says Israelis returning from China must quarantine themselves for 2 weeks, as tourists who were recently in China are banned from arriving

Illustrative: Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2L) and Health Ministry officials during a meeting on the threat of the Chinese coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, February 2, 2020. (Health Ministry/courtesy)
Illustrative: Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2L) and Health Ministry officials during a meeting on the threat of the Chinese coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, February 2, 2020. (Health Ministry/courtesy)

Israel on Sunday toughened its actions to prevent the arrival of the new Chinese coronavirus to the country, with the Health Ministry calling on anyone who recently returned from China to stay home.

Also on Sunday, the Philippines reported the first death outside of China from the virus, deepening global fears about an epidemic that has claimed more than 300 lives.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman chaired a meeting with ministry officials and professionals to deal with the threat of the virus — which has already spread to many countries — making an appearance in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also holding a meeting on the government’s preparedness.

“I call on those who recently returned from China to make sure to isolate yourselves and stay at home,” Litzman said in a video statement in Hebrew.

“Each and every one of us bears responsibility for the public’s health and everyone must take part in the effort to prevent the spreading of the virus,” he added.

People wearing face masks at the arrival hall of the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, January 28, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The meeting convened by Netanyahu was attend by the health, finance, justice, interior, and transportation ministers as well as the head of the National Security Council, among others, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

During the meeting Netanyahu said arrival of the virus in Israel is “unavoidable” and instructed the Israel Institute for Biological Research to prepare a vaccine to the coronavirus in case it needs to be mass-produced.

The National Security Council will oversee inter-ministerial preparations, the prime minister said, in order to cut bureaucracy.

At midday Sunday, new orders came into effect barring tourists who had been in China over the past two weeks from entering the country.

“We aren’t taking any unnecessary chances,” Netanyahu said Saturday. “The virus is already in five continents and 25 countries. We are aware that we cannot fully prevent the virus entering [Israel]. So we are preparing in advance for how to contend with the virus after it first arrives.”

Litzman on Thursday announced that Israel will not allow further flights into the country from China amid concerns over the spread of the virus. The national carrier, El Al, on Thursday joined multiple other airlines in pausing flights to China due to the outbreak of the virus.

Despite reports that Israelis who returned recently from China — including Israeli embassy employees — were not inspected or told to quarantine themselves at home, Litzman insisted Sunday that “we are taking this crisis very seriously.”

Litzman told the Ynet news site that inspections would be introduced at Ben Gurion Airport, “but we won’t necessarily publish by what means.”

“By law, we are demanding a two-week isolation,” he added. “Other countries aren’t letting people reach their homes. We are not at that stage. We prefer that they stay at home and not have physical contact with anyone. We will find the means to enforce this.”

Leader of the ‘Shas’ party Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, with leader of the United Torah Judaism party Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a joint party meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Litzman, along with Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Ben Gurion Airport managers, will later Sunday tour the airport to check the preparedness of the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration.

“The virus is already on five continents and… it is likely only a matter of time until it reaches us,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, tweeted Friday.

The Foreign Ministry said Friday that in light of the WHO announcement, it recommended that Israelis not travel to China until the emergency is declared over and that those in China consider leaving the country.

Medical staff wear protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city, work at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan on January 25, 2020. (Hector Retamal/)

Since emerging from the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus has infected 14,000 people across China and spread to 24 countries.

China has locked down Wuhan and surrounding cities in a bid to contain the virus, but it has continued to spread, prompting more cities to impose similar draconian measures.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global emergency and has warned that governments need to prepare for “domestic outbreak control” if the disease spreads in their countries.

Nations have taken extraordinary measures to build virtual fortresses against the disease. In addition to Israel, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand also banned foreign nationals from visiting if they had been in China recently, and warned their own citizens against traveling there.

Mongolia, Russia and Nepal closed their land borders, while Papua New Guinea went as far as to ban anyone arriving from ports or airports across Asia.

The containment measures may have slowed the spread of the virus, but not stopped it. Britain, Russia and Sweden this weekend confirmed their first infections.

AFP contributed to this report.

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