Netanyahu seeks to suspend flights amid fears over virus variants

PM to hold talks on halting travel for tourism purposes; measure may take effect in next 24 hours

An almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
An almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 18, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking to suspend most flights to and from Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport amid growing concerns over returning residents importing coronavirus variants.

The partial closure is set to take effect within 24 hours, according to a Channel 12 report on Saturday, which specified that the restriction will apply to those wishing to travel for tourism purposes — and even those who have been fully vaccinated.

The report initially specified outgoing flights but a government announcement later Saturday indicated the restriction would apply to all passenger travel.

Netanyahu is set to hold talks on the restrictions later Saturday and again on Sunday with officials from the Health Ministry, the Transportation Ministry, and the National Security Council.

Meanwhile, Health Ministry officials have been recommending the suspension of all flights to the UAE’s top destination Dubai, including business travel. The measure is backed by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, according to the report.

Channel 13 reported Saturday that the Health Ministry is also asking the government to approve the use of advanced surveillance tools to track Israelis returning from overseas.

Passengers wearing full protective suits and masks to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic push their luggage trolleys in the departures area at Ben Gurion Airport, on January 19, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Unnamed sources quoted by Channel 12 said the travel restriction would remain in effect for several weeks and won’t be lifted when the current lockdown measures are eased on January 31.

Some Health Ministry officials are suggesting the airport reopen fully when at least 5 million Israelis have been vaccinated, according to the report, a scenario that may be reached by early March.

Israel is in the midst of a third nationwide lockdown as it seeks to curb COVID-19 infections while closely watching mutated strains and undertaking a massive vaccination campaign.

On Tuesday, Israel’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said health officials estimate the British coronavirus variant is behind 30%-40% of current infections in Israel and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks. The mutated strain of the virus is more infectious, though it is not considered more deadly.

The country has taken a number of additional steps in recent days aimed at curbing the infections, including raising fines on rule-breakers and increasing limitations on international flights

Starting on Sunday, arrivals from abroad will not be allowed into the country without a negative COVID-19 test carried out within 72 hours of their flight, Channel 13 reported earlier Saturday. Currently, travelers are not obligated to be tested when flying in, though they are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Travelers presently have the option of being tested at the airport after landing to shorten their quarantine time to 10 days.

Airlines flying into Ben Gurion Airport have been notified not to allow passengers onto flights to Israel if they do not have valid negative tests in hand, the report said.

The government is also expected to approve raising fines Monday on those who defy health regulations: The fine for businesses that open against the rules will double from NIS 5,000 ($1,500) to NIS 10,000 ($3,000). The fines for educational institutions that open illegally and weddings and parties held against the rules will be set at NIS 20,000 ($6,000), the Channel 13 report said.

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