Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel’s skies must be closed to all international flights, as ministers convened to discuss further restricting entry to the country for people arriving from countries where a new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus has been identified.
“Stop all flights from all over the world,” Netanyahu said.
Health officials are concerned about the new coronavirus strain found in England and are weighing testing those who returned to Israel from the United Kingdom for the variant.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced a “stay at home” order for London and southeast England to slow the spread of the new coronavirus strain. Early data suggests the new strain could be “up to 70 percent more transmissible,” Johnson said at a televised briefing.
Separately, a severe variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa that could explain the rapid spread of a second wave that affects younger people, the South African health minister said Friday. Known as the 501.V2 Variant, it was identified by South African researchers and details have been sent to the World Health Organization, Zwelini Mkhize said in a statement.
Israel’s coronavirus cabinet convened Sunday to discuss the matter.
In public remarks at the start of the meeting, Netanyahu expressed support for completely closing the country’s skies with few exceptions.
Some cabinet members, including Transportation Minister Miri Regev, objected to Netanyahu’s proposal. “There’s no reason to close the sky,” she said.
The premier backed a suggestion from coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who said that until Ben Gurion Airport can be completely closed, Israel should bar entry for travelers from Britain, Denmark and South Africa, conduct virus tests on all recent returnees from those countries and perform genetic sequencing on confirmed carriers to potentially identify the new strain.
Netanyahu said it wasn’t yet clear whether the existing COVID-19 vaccines work against the new strain, but added there was no indication that they don’t.
A statement from Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office said that until more information is available and a policy is developed to contain the new mutation, returnees from the countries where the strain was found will likely be hosted in quarantine hotels. The statement added that the hotels were being prepared by the ministry and the IDF to be able to begin receiving those travelers starting 24 hours after a decision to do so is made.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the Ynet news website on Sunday that his ministry will recommend that ministers approve the temporary closure of the country’s main international airport.
“We first and foremost need to protect Israel’s borders,” he said. “We apologize to all those who may be harmed by that, but most important is to be safe. With our current woes, we won’t allow additional mutations into the country.”
Asked whether he thought Ben Gurion Airport would close this week to travelers, Edelstein said: “I hope so, because time is critical. What we don’t do immediately, in the coming hours, will be too late to do later.”
The Health Ministry will also reportedly consider barring all foreign nationals coming from Britain, Denmark and South Africa from entering the country, even if they are included in the small group of exceptions to Israel’s existing ban on foreigners’ entry, and compelling arrivals from the UK to stay in government-run hotels for their quarantine period instead of permitting home isolation.
Dr. Gila Rahav, director of the Infectious Diseases Department at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, told the Ynet news site: “The real question is whether the vaccine covers this strain. I imagine that even if it becomes a problem, because the mRNA [technology exists] we would be able to develop a vaccine for this as well.”
Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy signed an order on Friday that orders returning travelers from all countries into mandatory quarantine, effective December 26, Channel 12 reported. That, however, was largely aimed at the tens of thousands of Israelis who traveled to Dubai in recent weeks.
Israel’s vaccine drive officially began on Sunday morning, with healthcare workers, the president, and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff receiving the coronavirus shot throughout the day.