After the government approved several major new measures intended to limit the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Sunday that he felt the restrictions were unwarranted, given the currently known facts.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett acknowledged that the steps taken were “severe” but insisted they were necessary to keep Israelis safe. “I ask of the public patience and discipline,” he said.
During Saturday night’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, Sa’ar voted against the new restrictions. Speaking to the Ynet news site on Sunday morning, he said he respected the majority decision but did not agree with it.
Ministers voted to ban noncitizens from entering the country for two weeks, to expand mandatory quarantine for vaccinated Israelis arriving from abroad from 24 to 72 hours, and to authorize the Shin Bet security service to use tracking measures to find those who came into contact with suspected cases.
“I previously supported the proposals on [blocking] arrival from those African countries” where the new variant is suspected to be prevalent, Sa’ar said. But “there are restrictions here that I feel are not right, such as restrictions on arriving Israelis, included the vaccinated, and a complete halt of tourism to Israel.”
Sa’ar noted that such measures have “significant economic costs, at a time when we are on a good economic path.”
He added that the world, and Israel, “will be living for an unknown period of time with the coronavirus and with one mutation or another. We need to maintain our economy and routine life, and enact restrictions when it is truly necessary. We can always take extreme action. I don’t recommend doing so without very, very strong reasons.”
And such reasons had not yet been presented for Omicron, he said. “I don’t think the facts presented yesterday justified these decisions and that’s why I voted against them. Of course I respect the majority ruling and it obligates us all.”
Israel has so far confirmed one case of the new variant and is investigating seven other suspected cases. On Sunday the Health Ministry said the confirmed case was a woman who had traveled on a bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat on November 22. It called on all passengers who were on the 2:30 p.m. bus from Tel Aviv to get tested and self-isolate until they receive their results.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of public health services at the Health Ministry, acknowledged Sunday that a slow test result had led to the woman not being quarantined on arrival. The demand for vaccinated tourists had been to quarantine until receiving the result of a test taken after landing, or after 24 hours — whichever comes sooner. The woman exited quarantine after 24 hours and only later did her positive result come in.
“She wasn’t reachable and it took us several days to locate her,” Alroy-Preis told a Knesset panel.
At the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Bennett said: “I understand the weariness of living under the shadow of coronavirus. It’s not easy for anyone, but it is the reality… I know people may need to change their vacation destination or quarantine on arrival. It’s happened in my family too.”
He said the government’s goal was to allow normal life as much as possible. “To that end, we hold daily assessments on the threat and take the necessary steps. At the moment we need to tighten our borders to protect Israel. The restrictions at the border are not an easy step, but a necessary one.”
In an interview Sunday morning, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash spoke out in support of the new measures. Omicron, he told 103FM Radio, was “the most concerning variant so far. The steps being taken are proportionate. We want to delay its arrival in Israel.”
Ash stressed that while Israel has seen one confirmed case of the variant and seven other suspected cases so far, “our assessment is that it has not spread widely in the country.”
Shin Bet tracking, he said, would only be used “for those few cases that are suspected for the variant… while maintaining maximum privacy… We need to use all tools necessary to stop the spread of the variant.”
As for vaccine efficacy against the strain, Ash said much remains unclear, but there was cause for optimism.
“The vaccine is not 100 percent effective. We need to see if the protection afforded by the vaccine is much lower. We need time for that,” he said.
However, he noted, “there are reports that those vaccinated [generally] experience a mild illness if at all. The majority are asymptomatic. There is a high probability that the vaccine will be significantly effective against severe disease and infection.”
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, speaking to Army Radio, was also broadly supportive of the new restrictions. Shin Bet tracking, she stressed, “will be activated only for those infected or suspected to be infected with the new strain, and will be stopped if there is widespread morbidity, or if we come to see that the vaccine is effective.”
“The virus [variant] is already here,” she added. “We need to curb its spread until we know if it’s resistant to vaccines. We hope we won’t need to resort to [further] restrictions, but it depends on the public and on vaccination rates.”
Addressing the Knesset on Sunday, Alroy-Preis said the variant was spreading very quickly in South Africa and now constituted some 75 percent of cases in the country. She said it had “multiple serious mutations in exactly the strategic spots we worry about.”
Yisrael Beytenu’s Eli Avidar, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, said ahead of the full cabinet vote on the measures that he would vote against renewing Shin Bet tracking.
“It’s an insane red line,” he said. “This government cannot normalize the bad policies of the previous government. I expect all those who opposed it then to vote against it today. Shin Bet tracking is bad for democracy.”
The new ban on foreigners has caused fresh distress for the tourism sector, which has been largely out of business for nearly two years now.
One tour guide, Yaniv Weinstein, told Army Radio on Sunday that tour operators were “the most hard hit by the pandemic, without [enough] government support.” He said the latest measures could be a death blow to businesses. Others in the field have called for immediate clarification on how the government plans to support those harmed by the measures.
National Infrastructures Minister Karine Elharrar told the station that the government would work to compensate all those harmed by the latest limitations, but did not provide details.
The new rules going into effect on Sunday night will see foreign nationals barred from entering Israel for 14 days, unless they receive special permission from a government panel. Israel had just reopened to foreign tourism in early November, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
Ministers on Saturday night also expanded mandatory quarantine for vaccinated Israelis arriving from abroad.
Vaccinated Israelis — who under the existing rules had to take a coronavirus test upon landing and remain in isolation until receiving a negative result or for 24 hours at the maximum — will now be required to enter quarantine for 72 hours and take another COVID test on the third day after they arrive. Unvaccinated travelers must remain in quarantine for at least a week, and can leave isolation upon receiving a negative test result conducted on the seventh day.
Israelis coming from high-risk “red” countries will have to quarantine in designated state-run hotels for at least a week.
Top ministers sparred over the restrictions during the meeting, with Sa’ar and Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton opposing strict limits to contain the Omicron variant.
During the meeting, Bennett said Israel needs to be cautious and minimize risks amid uncertainty over the new strain. “We’re currently in a period of uncertainty. It’s not a simple or comfortable place to be,” Bennett said.
“The key here is caution and minimal risks until we learn more. We want to maintain Israel’s tremendous achievement during the Delta wave — an open and functioning Israel, with a functioning economy, and an active education system with children going to school. That’s the top priority,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he had spoken with the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna on Saturday night, as well as top officials in the Health Ministry and leading health experts.
He called on Israelis to get vaccinated and get booster shots, even if they have recovered from the virus, and said children should be vaccinated ahead of the Hanukkah holiday, which begins on Sunday night.
Israel approved the vaccine for children aged 5-11 last week, but only 6.5 percent of children in that age group, or around 65,000 out of 1 million, have so far been inoculated or have an appointment.
Eran Segal, a leading epidemiologist, said 600,000 eligible adults have not been vaccinated at all, and 1.1 million Israelis who are eligible for a booster shot have not received one.
The Health Ministry said Saturday that coronavirus’s basic reproduction number in Israel has increased to 1.07. Known also as the “R-number,” the figure represents the number of people each confirmed patient infects, on average. Any number over 1 signifies infection is expanding.