Knesset panel okays US travel ban from midnight in race to curb Omicron spread

Expansion of no-fly list also includes Italy, Canada, Germany and Turkey, as ministry announces that over 650 of confirmed or suspected Omicron cases have come from abroad

Knesset lawmakers on Tuesday voted to approve the government’s decision to ban citizens and residents from travel to and from the United States, adding it to a list of more than 50 countries declared off-limits in an effort to contain the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The Constitution Law and Justice Committee vote placed the United States on Israel’s “red list,” along with Italy, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey, committee spokeswoman Ronit Gal said in a statement.

The ban goes into effect at midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday and will remain in force for at least a week, Gal added.

The United Kingdom, France and Spain were among the countries already on the red list, as well as the United Arab Emirates and much of Africa.

Adding the US to the red list was a significant move for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis hold US citizenship.

The designation means that Israeli passport holders and residents cannot fly to the US without permission from an exemptions committee. The move marks the first time that Israel has included the US on its red list.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant accounted for 73.2 percent of new cases in the US over the week that ended Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

City residents wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The latest restrictions were approved as the Health Ministry reported that there were 170 new confirmed Omicron cases, bringing the total number of confirmed and suspected infections to 1,148. Of those, 666 were among people who had been abroad, and another 93 were tracked to contact with a infected traveler.

More than half the cases were among vaccinated people.

The Omicron cases were part of an upward trend of coronavirus infections. On Monday 1,306 cases were recorded, a level last seen in October.

Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 19, 2021 (Flash90)

Israel blocked nearly all foreign visitors last month after Omicron was detected in South Africa, just weeks after permitting tourists to enter for the first time since the pandemic began.

Health expert Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute said on public radio that preventing Israeli citizens and residents from travel was only a partial solution.

Eran Segal (courtesy of Eran Segal)

“Everyone knows the restrictions on the skies are to delay the arrival of Omicron, not to avert it,” he said. “We must take advantage of these restrictions… so they help us with the vaccine efforts.”

Still, Segal said there was “room for optimism” as Omicron may not cause as severe infection as previous coronavirus variants.

More than 4.1 million Israelis have received three doses of a coronavirus vaccine in the country of roughly 9.3 million people.

But inoculation rates remain low among teens and young children. Fewer than one percent of children aged 5-11 have received a single coronavirus jab.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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