US Vice President Mike Pence urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ensure that Israel’s demand for self-quarantine by those arriving from abroad be applied to arrivals from all countries, rather than singling out the US and some other locations, Channel 12 news reported Monday, citing officials familiar with the events.
Netanyahu announced Monday that anyone arriving in the country would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, as the latest measure aimed at preventing a spread of the deadly new coronavirus in the country. Israeli citizens are expected to isolate themselves at home, while non-citizens will only be granted entry if they can show they have the means to maintain a comparable quarantine.
Israeli health officials had been mulling adding more countries to an existing list of places that required quarantine for those returning from them — and the US, or at least several specific states, were expected to be put on the roster, following an increase of coronavirus cases there.
During a Sunday night phone call, Pence was said to have warned Netanyahu that if the US was blacklisted, it would not go down well in Washington, in particular because no other country was making similar demands of those arriving from the US.
Pence noted that the Trump administration would accept an Israeli decision for a sweeping global quarantine order, the report said.
Israeli officials told the channel that Pence’s remarks encouraged the prime minister to support the Health Ministry’s demand to order a blanket quarantine.
US President Donald Trump has consistently attempted to downplay the affects of the virus, dismissing it as media fear-mongering meant to crash the stock market and make him look bad.
On Monday, he tweeted that the number of cases was far lower than an average seasonal flu.
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
Scientists at this stage do not know what the death rate of the new coronavirus actually is and whether it will wind up being about the same as flu or worse.
At the same time, administration officials were insistent that they were not trying to dismiss public concerns. “This is a very serious health problem,” US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.
Earlier Monday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman dismissed as “fake news” the suggestion that casting such a broad net would be an attempt to not single out the United States, where infection rates appear to be rocketing, telling Army Radio that a wider set of protocols was a “necessary step.”
The health minister denied that political considerations were tainting his ministry’s decisions, saying that there was “no problem” when Netanyahu spoke with Pence about the matter on Sunday.
Anonymous sources told the Haaretz daily on Monday there was concern that public health considerations were taking a backseat to politics and that there was a lack of transparency in the decision-making process.
Israel’s option of demanding a general quarantine was discussed during a meeting Monday attended by health officials and a range of government ministers. There was division among cabinet members, with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich backing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to order the quarantine, Channel 12 reported.
They were opposed by Economy Minister Eli Cohen, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Ofir Akunis, and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. Deri urged that the quarantine not be applied retroactively for those who have already returned to the country, as it would affect over 250,000 people, in his estimate.
At the end of the meeting, Netanyahu did not make a final decision on the matter, saying he wants more consultations and that he would decide later in the evening. Shortly before 8 p.m., the prime minister announced that all incoming travelers are required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
As of Monday evening, there were 50 cases of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, most of them contracted by travelers returning from abroad.
The Health Ministry has for weeks ordered measures to clamp down on foreign entries and force home-quarantines that have been seen by some as draconian and diplomatically harmful, but officials have defended them as helping keep the virus at bay. Some 22,000 Israelis are already in quarantine, the Health Ministry said Monday morning.
Unlike other quarantine orders, which were open-ended, Netanyahu said this order will be in place for two weeks. He added that further decisions were being made by the government to protect the economy. He did not elaborate.
The move will essentially shut down tourism, as only non-citizens with a place to quarantine for 14 days will be allowed in the country, and is likely to send shockwaves through Israel’s already battered travel sector.