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Israel is 'strange case: high infections, high vaccinations'

Portugal, Sweden slap COVID entry ban on Israelis, including those vaccinated

New bans take effect, ironically, as Israel eases quarantine rules for returning travelers; Italy, Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Czech Republic bar unvaccinated Israelis

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: travellers wear protective face masks at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
Illustrative image: travellers wear protective face masks at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Portugal and Sweden have decided to bar entry to Israeli nationals amid soaring coronavirus infections in the Jewish state, a move some other European nations are expected to follow.

Israelis scheduled to fly Thursday to Portugal were prevented from checking in at Ben Gurion Airport. The Swedish ban will take effect on Monday, a representative from the Swedish embassy in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel.

Though vaccination rates in Israel are among the world’s highest, Portugal and Sweden have their eyes on the elevated case numbers and aren’t making exceptions for Israelis who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19. The two countries only accept European Union vaccination certificates.

Their decisions came after the European Union on Monday removed Israel from a list of nations deemed “epidemiologically safe.”

Member states are not bound by the EU recommendation and Italy has decided to bar unvaccinated Israelis but welcome those with Israeli vaccination certificates. Spain will from September 6 require proof of vaccination 14 days or more before the trip. Romania and the Czech Republic have also said that only vaccinated Israelis will be allowed into the country.

The Netherlands, for its part, announced Friday that starting Saturday, only vaccinated Israelis will be allowed into the country and they must quarantine upon arrival. Beginning Monday, Israeli travelers must also present a negative coronavirus test result.

One of several Israeli passengers barred from getting on a flight to Portugal at Ben Gurion Airport on September 2, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Epidemiologist Nadav Davidovitch, a professor at Ben Gurion University, said Israel is currently a “strange case” for other governments to try to categorize.

“We have some of the highest rates for both infections and vaccinations,” Davidovitch noted, explaining this will cause countries to vary in how they assess the level of risk posed by Israelis.

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis in a drive-through complex to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, in Modi’in, on July 21, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Frustratingly, the entry bans by Portugal and Sweden come precisely as many Israelis plan to resume overseas travel following the government’s relaxation of quarantine rules for vaccinated returning travelers, provided they are not coming from “red” countries with high infection rates.

On Friday, new quarantine rules for arriving travelers took effect, with those now defined by the Health Ministry as immunized largely exempt from having to self-isolate for a week.

The easing of the quarantine rules was expected to be a boon for travel. But in the case of Portugal and Sweden, and potentially other EU countries, the new bans on Israelis will have the opposite effect.

Over the Rainbow, an organization that promotes Israel-Portugal travel, wrote to senior ministers in Lisbon on Thursday appealing the decision.

A sign outside the COVID-19 emergency room at Santa Maria hospital in Lisbon on July 2, 2021 (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP)

Itay Mor, Over the Rainbow’s president, said it is “incomprehensible” that citizens of the United States and Brazil, two other countries removed from the EU’s safe list, are welcome in Portugal when Israelis are not.

“It’s absurd that one of the most vaccinated countries is now starting to be blocked out of parts of Europe,” Mor told The Times of Israel, arguing it is particularly unfair since, he said, the count of serious virus cases in Israel has started to fall.

Mor wrote to the Portuguese ministers: “We appeal to you to ensure that the measures currently in force in Portugal can be corrected as soon as possible so that the countless Israelis who wish to travel to the country can do so as soon as possible.”

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