Switzerland on Saturday became the first nation to place fresh limitations on Israelis arriving to the country, as it largely barred those who do not have European passports from entering. The move came after a case of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 was discovered in Israel, alongside three other suspected cases and fears that more could already be spreading in the population.
Israel’s coronavirus cabinet was set to meet on Saturday evening, to debate new restrictions on entry, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said to favor stringent restrictions and other ministers inclining to a more lenient approach.
Omicron is said to be the most heavily mutated strain to date of the coronavirus virus, which experts believe may mean it transmits more easily, though it is not yet clear if it is more dangerous.
Switzerland said anyone seeking to enter the country from Israel, Belgium, Hong Kong and numerous African countries would need to have either Swiss citizenship or a residency permit in the European Union’s Schengen area to enter. They would also need to present a negative test result and quarantine for 10 days upon arrival.
“This also applies to vaccinated and recovered persons,” said the statement from Switzerland’s Federal Office of Public Health.
Action to restrict arrivals from Israel was apparently being considered by other countries, as governments race to get ahead of Omicron, which is feared to be highly contagious, and possibly better able to bypass vaccine protection than other strains.
Israel was among numerous countries to ban foreigners arriving from most African countries in recent days. The highly mutated Omicron was first identified in South Africa.
The country is still allowing Israelis who previously departed to those countries to return, but is enacting strict quarantine measures. All arrivals from so-called “red” nations will be processed through Ben Gurion Airport’s smaller Terminal 1, to keep them away from the majority of passengers. They will then be required to isolate at state-run quarantine hotels.
Israel’s coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Saturday evening to consider further steps to curb the spread of the new variant. According to Kan news, Bennett prefers to close Israel to foreigners entirely due to the emergence of Omicron (Israel only fully reopened to vaccinated tourists on November 1). But Channel 12 reported that most ministers do not currently support such drastic action.
Beyond the airport, another area of concern is the education system, where health officials fear the outbreak could be most prominent.
Bennett on Friday said the government was “preparing for every scenario” concerning the new strain, and recommended Israelis generally avoid travel abroad. But he said there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public services, said Friday that vaccinated individuals who have contracted the new variant appear to generally have a mild illness only.
“We’re not in an emergency sitation, but we are in a worrying situation with a variant that is developing very fast,” Alroy-Preis told Channel 12. “We’re mainly seeing it in South Africa and neighboring [African] states. And we are simply acting fast to ensure we don’t reach an emergency situation. We recognized it early… The question now is how to ensure further danger does not enter Israel.”
She added: “We recommend that the flow of tourism be reduced, but to still let Israelis travel… But we don’t know everything about where the variant is in the world… and therefore the prime minister’s recommendation and ours at the health ministry is to minimize non-essential travel.”
In a Channel 12 interview Friday, the government’s coronavirus czar Salman Zarka said he recommended expanding the no-fly list to additional countries outside of Africa.
“We will look at other countries, especially countries that serve as connection hubs for passengers coming from Africa, such as Turkey, perhaps,” he said.
Zarka went even further urging Israelis to remain at home, in a remark reminiscent of earlier waves of the virus.
“I recommend that Israelis remain at home, be sure to wear a mask, not go into crowded spaces and most importantly go and get vaccinated,” he said.
The government has instructed the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command to locate all those who arrived from relevant African countries over the past week, and to order them to immediately self-isolate. Home Front Command soldiers will also conduct home virus tests, the prime minister said.
Bennett said he ordered the government to purchase 10 million PCR test kits designed to better detect the variant.
He also instructed authorities to accelerate the process of sampling sewage throughout the country to detect if the new strain is widely spreading in Israel.
“We are at a worrying point,” Bennett said at the press conference after announcing the government’s plan to combat the new variant. The variant “is so concerning that after dozens or hundreds of strains under examination, it led the Health Ministry and epidemiologists in Israel and around the world to raise red flags.”
At the press conference, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz called on Israelis who had recently returned from countries now on the “red” list to immediately get tested.
“We’ve been on the lookout for such variants and took into account that another one could arise,” Horowitz said. He said samples from incoming travelers at Ben Gurion Airport would be tested for the new variant.
Earlier on Friday, at a meeting with Horowitz and experts, Bennett said that the government’s “overriding principle at the moment is to take quick and strong action, now, especially regarding entry to – and exit from – Israel, until the situation becomes clearer.”
“When it does, we will decide what we are doing,” he added.
The premier acknowledged that there might be an economic price to some of the steps the government could take to curb the new variant, but said authorities will help those impacted by the restrictions.
The first case of the strain was detected in Israel after a person arrived from Malawi, the Health Ministry announced earlier on Friday.
Three others are suspected of also being infected with the new strain, Bennett said. He added that there are likely more cases that are undetected in the country.