Starting from midnight this Sunday, Israel will forbid the entry of noncitizens for two weeks, in an attempt to stem the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant in the country and to allow experts time to assess its level of transmissibility and resistance against existing vaccines.
The newest variant, which was first detected in South Africa and which experts say may spread two to six times more quickly than the delta variant, is confirmed in one person and suspected in seven others in Israel.
Only three of the suspected cases had recently returned from abroad, raising concern that the variant’s transmission has already begun within Israel.
The United States, the European Union and Britain have begun implementing travel bans and restrictions for people coming from South Africa and neighboring countries. Israel is the first country to completely shut its borders because of the omicron variant.
At a three-hour cabinet meeting on Saturday night, the government decided to tighten quarantine rules, reinstate the Israeli security service Shin Bet’s role in surveilling the cellphones of people confirmed to be carrying the variant, and require events of more than 50 participants to apply a Green Pass system, by which participants must show proof of vaccination or recovery.
There are no directives to cancel events for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which starts Sunday night.
“The key here is caution and minimal risk,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Saturday night. He said that the government is looking to keep the economy and schools open, as it had done thanks in part to the rollout of the booster shot program during the delta wave.
In an interview with 103FM radio on Sunday, Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash said that Israel’s response “isn’t hysteria, but concern. … We want to at least be able to delay the variant’s entry into Israel.”
Israel has defined all countries in Africa, except Morocco and Egypt — with which Israel has diplomatic ties — as “red.” Israelis landing from “red” countries must take a PCR test upon landing, enter quarantine at a coronavirus hotel, and then, pending negative results, complete a seven-day home quarantine that can be ended with a negative PCR test on Day 7.
Israelis returning from any non-red country, including the fully vaccinated, will also be required, in addition to taking a PCR test on landing as has already been the protocol, to enter a three-day home quarantine, after which they must receive negative PCR test.
The government announced plans to obtain 10 million PCR test kits modified to detect the new variant, launch a pilot program to install air filters in classrooms and day-care facilities, and expand sewage testing across the country to detect new cases.