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Officials bicker over airport virus failures ahead of cabinet vote

Health and justice ministries trade blame over lack of testing for international arrivals; transportation minister accuses predecessor of failing to set up a lab at airport

Passengers at the Ben Gurion Airport departure hall on December 14, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Passengers at the Ben Gurion Airport departure hall on December 14, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israeli officials traded blame on Monday for the ongoing and continued failures to put safeguards in place to prevent virus carriers from transiting through Ben Gurion International Airport, a day before a cabinet meeting to again try and address the problem.

The high rate of infection in Israel and the emergence of new virus variants that are believed to be more transmissible have added urgency to the debate.

The cabinet will vote on whether mandatory virus checks can be put in place for arrivals at the airport. The Health Ministry and Transportation Ministry said Monday that the airport will begin to offer rapid tests that will return results in four hours. The tests will likely be available after the current lockdown ends, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Ministers were also set to weigh the possibility of banning all non-urgent travel from Israel, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

Another proposal said to be up for discussion was shutting down Ben Gurion Airport completely, but it was believed there could be legal obstacles to that plan. Israel’s single gateway to the world is seen by health officials as a major contributor to illness rates.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev on Monday blamed her predecessor and the Justice Ministry for shortcomings at the airport and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported shuttering the airport.

“From Netanyahu’s point of view, he wanted to close the airport, and said that a number of times in Cabinet meetings,” Regev told Channel 13. “The attorney general said it’s not possible to close the airport because Israelis need to get home. We demanded that tests be carried out before people come into the country after we saw the mutations, and they said it’s not possible to make it mandatory.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev visits a new coronavirus laboratory, at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv on November 9, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

She blamed former transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich for some of the problems, saying that when she took over the ministry in May, there was no testing laboratory set up at the airport, and said the Justice Ministry would not allow for mandatory virus testing.

“Smotrich did not take care of the lab at the airport,” Regev said. “We set up a lab at the airport, we asked for all arriving travelers get tested. The Justice Ministry said clearly that it’s not possible to do that. The airport was set up, but what was lacking was the legal approval.”

Army radio reported Monday that there is a dispute between the justice and health ministries over testing at the airport, with the Health Ministry saying the justice ministry was preventing tests, while legal officials said they had only received the request recently.

The Justice Ministry said Monday that contrary to reports and statements, there was no legal issue with requiring Israelis returning from abroad to undergo a virus test.

“Following a number of false publications, we make it clear there is no truth in the claim that the legal advice to the government ever prevented, in any way, the conditional entry into the country from abroad on presenting a negative coronavirus test,” the statement read. “The issue only first came up last week, and we emphasize that there is an appropriate legal way to settle the matter.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Monday had claimed that previous legal issues with the proposal had only been cleared due to the emergence of new, highly infectious strains of the virus that have been brought into the country by travelers.

Police officers virus lockdown restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, January 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein told Army Radio on Monday that ministers would meet the next day to decide whether to advance a proposal that would ban exiting Israel except for diplomatic or humanitarian reasons. There were no further details given on the possible criteria.

According to Channel 12 news, ministers, health officials and representatives of the National Security Council have decided to promote a number of proposals aimed at reducing the number of infections coming in from abroad.

In addition to the travel ban idea, which may involve paying compensation to those who have already purchased tickets, the obligation to quarantine in a state-run hotel could be extended to travelers returning from more countries with high rates of infection or new strains of the virus, as well as increased enforcement and oversight of those permitted to isolate at home.

Furthermore, entry into Israel would be conditional on providing a negative coronavirus test.

Ministers were to meet on Tuesday to also discuss extending an ongoing national lockdown, ordered to curb the virus infections, and which is scheduled to end on Thursday. Ministers are reportedly divided on whether to extend the lockdown which has shuttered nonessential businesses and the education system, but health officials have said it would need to be extended for at least a week to bring infection rates under control.

Health Ministry officials had hoped to see a drop in daily infections and serious cases, but there is no such trend at this time. The more contagious virus variants — particularly the British strain — are being blamed for the difficulty in bringing down illness rates and easing the heavy load on hospitals, despite the lockdown and mass vaccinations.

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