A top health official announced Sunday that Israelis will be barred from visiting the United Kingdom and Denmark, as the government tightens travel restrictions and quarantine requirements due to fears of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said the countries will be added to the list of “red” nations in the next 72 hours.
“These are three countries in which it is clear the spread of Omicron in the community is very significant,” she said during a press briefing held by the Health Ministry.
Belgium was initially also declared “red” on Sunday afternoon, but the ministry later withdrew that designation, saying the infection rate there did not currently justify a travel ban.
Health Ministry Nitzan Horowitz said additional countries will be classified as “red” in the coming days, but stressed that the government does not currently plan to bar international travel entirely.
He also urged Israelis to refrain from non-essential travel overseas.
“Whoever is planning to travel abroad at this time needs to know that, upon their return, they are likely to go into full quarantine because the country will be declared a red country,” Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, said during the briefing.
The announcement of the new “red” countries came a day after coalition party leaders agreed to update the list of banned countries daily, a move that could reduce flights abroad by making it difficult to plan trips in advance.
Under new quarantine rules approved Sunday by a Knesset committee, Israelis coming from “red” countries must isolate at a state-run facility for at least 10 days. However, they can be released to their homes to complete their quarantines if they test negative for Omicron.
Horowitz touted the government’s Omicron response during the press briefing, saying Israel was “in a good place” relative to other countries. He credited the measures that the government has imposed for having prevented the country from being hit as hard as others.
“There is a feeling among the public that everything is fine, but we must act now,” he said.
“We know for sure that Omicron is much more contagious, spreads at a very high rate, and that whoever is vaccinated with a booster is better protected from serious illness,” Horowitz added.
The health minister said the unvaccinated “endanger themselves and those around them” and urged parents with kids aged 5-11 to get them vaccinated.
Ash also issued an appeal for Israelis to get vaccinated, warning of the potential for severe morbidity from Omicron.
“The rate of infection from Omicron and its ability to spread with the population will cause a lot of people to get infected and if there is large population that isn’t vaccinated, there will be a lot of seriously ill people,” he said.
According to Alroy-Preis, Omicron is more contagious than past variants and is better able to evade vaccines. However, she also noted it has caused less fatalities and severe morbidity than previous COVID-19 outbreaks.
Her assessment mirrored that of the World Health Organization, which said Sunday that Omicron spreads faster than the Delta variant, and reduces vaccine efficacy, but appears to cause less severe symptoms.
Of the 67 Omicron infections so far confirmed in Israel, there has only been one case of someone falling seriously ill — an unvaccinated man who was hospitalized — and no deaths. Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a potential lockdown “if we do not take immediate and difficult steps now.”
But the prime minister said that “our overarching goal is to keep the Israeli economy as open as possible, without a lockdown, and to do so without reaching hospitals’ limits.”
He also lamented Israel’s “horrible” immunization rate, as the government pushed for higher vaccine numbers, particularly of the booster shot, to curb the spread of Omicron.
Echoing comments made last week by Horowitz, Bennett said Israel was “preparing for the need” to administer fourth shots in the new year, starting with the immunocompromised.
According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 223 coronavirus infections were confirmed Saturday, with 0.63 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases has recently ticked back above 100, days after dropping below that mark for the first time in four months.
The death toll remained at 8,210, with no fatalities since last Monday.
A total of 6,400,940 Israeli have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,789,014 of them having also received a second shot and 4,120,329 of them having received a third.