Israel may allow quarantine-free travel from ‘green’ countries as of mid-August

Health Ministry tells Knesset it plans to end requirement for travelers from virus-free states; flights must resume, says Ben Gurion Airport chief, or Israelis should learn to swim

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion airport on June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion airport on June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Facing growing pressure to reopen Israel’s skies, health officials told the Knesset on Wednesday they were working on a plan to allow incoming flights without medical checks or quarantine requirements from “green” countries that would allow regular flights to resume beginning next month.

Incoming travelers from countries with low rates of coronavirus infections would be allowed free entry into Israel, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto told the Knesset State Control Committee.

“Anyone flying in from a ‘green’ country won’t require two weeks of quarantine, period,” Grotto said.

The countries expected to be included on the list, according to a report on Channel 12 citing airline sources: Austria, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Lichtenstein, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

The new policy is slated to go into effect on August 16, he added, saying, “this requires a little more preparation, it can’t happen tomorrow morning. We will make every effort.”

Itamar Grotto, deputy director-general of the Health Ministry, at a press conference about the coronavirus, May 29, 2020 (Screen capture, Facebook)

Lawmakers and industry leaders said at the Wednesday morning meeting that entire industries faced collapse if flights were not restarted soon.

“The only way to ensure that a traveler isn’t carrying the virus is to conduct checks, but the Health Ministry tells us that the checks have a high rate of mistakes, and also that the medical checks are a national resource that can’t be spent on flights,” complained Shmuel Zakai, the chief executive of Ben Gurion Airport.

“As long as that’s the government’s position, flights won’t be restarting. We’re already past the point of no return. We might want to add swimming lessons to the core curriculum, because Israelis won’t be able to leave here any other way,” he said.

Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir agreed with Zakai’s concerns and urged a reopening of flights “as soon as possible, even if it’s only partial.

“The need to check travelers will be with us for years, and therefore there’s no question that we need to invest in major infrastructure and medical services changes at Ben Gurion Airport” to accommodate the new reality, “including establishing laboratories, medical checks and putting in place the necessary regulations,” Zamir told the committee.

El Al planes at the Ben Gurion International Airport, April 12, 2020. (Flash90)

“The airlines were one of the first industries hurt” by the pandemic, “and one of the fastest- and deepest-hurt,” said committee chair MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid).

“Assuming no vaccine becomes available in the next six months, we can’t have a situation where Israeli aviation remains shuttered, and we find ourselves the day after [the pandemic] without an Israeli airline industry whatsoever.”

It’s unclear whether the move will allow for a significant boost to Israel’s airlines, tourism and hospitality industries. Even if Israel opens up to incoming travelers and tourists from “green” countries, it remains on the “red” list for much of the world due to the rate of the virus’s spread within Israel itself. Israelis are currently not allowed into many countries, while tourists who visit Israel from permitted countries are likely to face a two-week quarantine upon their return home, a fact that is likely to continue to suppress travel.

Israel is unlikely to get off the no-fly list for many countries. On Tuesday, data compiled by a scientific publication based at Oxford University revealed that Israel now has the fifth highest number of new coronavirus infections per capita in the world, overtaking the hard-hit United States.

On Tuesday, Israel recorded 210,96 new COVID-19 cases per million people, Our World in Data said, behind only Oman, Panama, Brazil and Bahrain. The US, which has the most reported virus cases and deaths of any country, had an infection rate of 198.64 per million people.

Israel was still well behind the US and numerous other countries in fatalities per million people, with a rate of 0.97.

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