The Health Ministry on Sunday recommended that the government add 10 new countries to the list of destinations designated “red” due to high COVID-19 infections rates, as Israel braces for a wave of new cases driven by the Omicron variant.
Ministers were expected to approve the recommendation to bar travel to the United States, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Canada, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey from Wednesday, December 22, in a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet later Sunday.
The decision is driven by data seen by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett showing the likelihood of “a significant outbreak” of COVID-19 within three weeks, with the peak surpassing that of the Delta wave, which started in June.
Officials have said Bennett is “looking to buy time” to possibly delay the wave of infections by “closing the skies” to destinations popular with Israelis.
Israel has in recent days already added nine countries to the “red,” no-fly list: the UK, Denmark, France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. South Africa and a slew of other African countries were added at the start of the month.
Those wanting to travel to “red” countries need to first obtain special permission from a government committee.
Israelis who return from those countries are required to enter quarantine in state-run hotels until their first COVID test comes back negative, after which they can leave, but must remain in home quarantine for seven days, even if they are fully vaccinated.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Sunday approved the opening of another two “coronavirus hotels,” including one to quarantine travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, according to his office. Three such state-run facilities, which are run by the Home Front Command, were already operating.
Gantz also ordered ministry officials “to prepare for the opening of additional hotels as needed,” a statement from his office said.
On Thursday, the cabinet voted to extend the current travel restrictions, including the ban on foreigners entering the country and a requirement for all returning Israelis to quarantine for three days upon entry. The limitations will now last until December 29 at least.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday that the restrictions were needed to “buy time” for the vaccination campaign.
“We are facing a new situation. Most of the infection from Omicron is coming from abroad, so we must limit the rate of entry of the virus into Israel in order to buy time and vaccinate as much as possible before the spread also occurs in Israel,” Horowitz told Army Radio.
But in a statement released after Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, in which expanding the no-fly list was discussed, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli said she told ministers that she would not back any further restrictions on travel “until the issue of support for airline companies is resolved.”
She said the government was “abandoning thousands of workers for whom this is their livelihood. There is currently no unpaid leave agreement or anything else that supports them. These people perform critical work and the State of Israel must protect the service offered by the airlines.”
“We have already heard that British Airways has canceled its flights to Israel as of tomorrow. If not the Israeli airlines, who will fly Israelis who are currently overseas back home? I demand that support for the airlines be agreed on this week,” Michaeli said.
Bennett has come under criticism in recent weeks for the policy steps he has taken; however, according to the Haaretz daily, the premier believes he has bought the time needed to slow the entry of the highly contagious variant into the country, giving scientists a window to study it as well as buying time for the vaccination and booster campaign.
At the cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked warned that “within four weeks, we’ll be at tens of thousands of confirmed [COVID] cases and thousands of shuttered school classes,” Channel 12 reported.
The network said Science Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen concurred that Israel would experience a significant infection wave in the coming weeks, encouraging vaccination by enforcing the Green Pass at all non-essential stores and decreeing that coronavirus tests for anyone over age five who is not vaccinated must be paid for out of pocket.
The Health Ministry said Sunday that 372 new COVID-19 infections were diagnosed on Saturday, a low number reflecting reduced testing over the weekend. Some 838 new COVID-19 cases were diagnosed Thursday, 45 of which had been confirmed to be of the Omicron variant, bringing the total number of Omicron cases in Israel to over 130.
Most of the cases were found in people returning from overseas. The ministry did not provide a breakdown of the latest figures.
According to the ministry, there were 81 COVID-19 patients in serious condition and 41 on ventilators Sunday. Most patients in serious condition are over 60 and unvaccinated.
Since the start of the pandemic, 5.8 million Israelis have received two vaccine doses, and over 4.1 million have gotten a third, booster shot.
The death toll in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 8,232 on Sunday.