Israel tightens travel restrictions over new Covid variant

The Health Ministry said the country’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a raft of measures, including red-listing travel to 50 African countries.

Travellers wearing face masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport
Travellers wearing face masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport

Israel has approved barring entry to foreign nationals and the use of controversial technology for contact tracing as part of its efforts to crack down on a new coronavirus variant.

The Health Ministry said in a statement that the country’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a raft of measures, including red-listing travel to 50 African countries, banning entry by foreigners, and mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.

It also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of individuals confirmed with the new Omicron variant of coronavirus in Israel.

Virus Outbreak Israel
Israel said it detected the new Omicron variant in a traveller who had returned from Malawi (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Israeli rights groups had decried the use of the mobile phone monitoring technology as a violation of privacy rights, and the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that its use must be limited.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said in a statement on Sunday that “resuming the programme via emergency regulation is a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” and pointed to the court’s ruling that “the tracking had not proven effective in preventing the spread of the virus”.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that tightening Israel’s borders would help to keep the country open internally.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Dr Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on Covid-19, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures are necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it is “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.

On Saturday, Israel said it had detected the new strain in a traveller who had returned from Malawi and was investigating seven other suspected cases. The seven people included three vaccinated individuals and all were placed in isolation.

Scientists say the new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread.

Israel, a country of 9.3 million people, has reported at least 8,184 deaths from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

Most of the population – more than 6.3 million people – have received at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and more than 4 million Israelis have received a booster.

The country has more than 7,000 active cases, 120 of them in a serious condition in hospital, according to Health Ministry statistics.

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