Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will bring a proposal to the government on Sunday to prohibit the entry and exit of all foreign and Israeli passengers from Ben-Gurion Airport amid fears over a growing number of coronavirus mutations.
Netanyahu and a group of senior ministers and health officials met late night Saturday to discuss the issue and determined that the number of people allowed to enter and exit the country will be drastically reduced. Anyone wishing to enter or exit Israel will require special permission.
If approved by the government, the restrictions will apply to passenger flights for 14 days.
The discussion came after reports over the weekend showed that the British variant could be more deadly than originally thought.
British officials said that the COVID-19 variant identified in England last month could carry a higher risk of causing death, although data is limited. Until now, health officials have said there was no evidence that it was more lethal or caused more serious illness.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Health Ministry said that it discovered through genetic sequencing that six out of seven pregnant women screened for the British mutation were infected by it. The ministry was waiting for the results for three more women.
“Practically, in terms of our day to day, this means nothing,” Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University told The Jerusalem Post Saturday night, noting that Israel is already on lockdown, wearing masks and social distancing – and that the British variant is already in the country so shutting down the airport would have no effect on that.
In addition, he noted that most studies show that the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is effective against the mutation.
However, he said that there are greater fears over the South African mutation, because that some early studies have shown that it may be able to withstand the antibodies developed by the Pfizer vaccine. Several cases of the South African variant were brought into Israel via the United Arab Emirates.
In addition, there have been mutations discovered in recent weeks in Brazil, the United States and other countries, and little is still known about them.
“It would be advisable for us to shut down, or at least limit as much as possible the air traffic,” he told the Post. “We are counting on vaccines.”
The Health Ministry has been pushing for more stringent control at the airport for almost the entire pandemic. Over the weekend, Head of Public Health Services Prof. Sharon Alroy-Preis said that “the important point is that we realize we cannot continue letting in variants that cause infection.”
The fear, which Cohen alluded to, is that the variants might go against the country’s vaccination program and hurt its ability to surface from the crisis – a sentiment shared in a report published Saturday by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center.
The report said that even with genetic sequencing able to detect when a patient is infected with a variant, most countries in the world are not all able to keep track of mutations as they develop. Moreover, even countries that can identify variants do not know how to quickly assess the danger.
“The case of the British variant proved that despite Israel’s quick response after learning of its existence, it was too late to stop its spread among the population,” the report highlighted.
As such, the center recommended that when traveling abroad, even people who have had the virus or have been vaccinated should be careful to wear masks and social distance. Moreover, it recommended avoiding unnecessary travel and treating arriving passengers who have been vaccinated and have recovered like any others, by requiring testing and potentially even a short isolation period.
Saturday night at midnight, a government decision went into effect to require anyone entering the country to show a negative coronavirus test.
On Friday afternoon, the Health Ministry sent out a memo explaining that any person wishing to board a flight to Israel would be required to present the air carrier with a negative PCR coronavirus test that was taken within 72 hours of the flight, or a vaccination certificate provided by the ministry.
In addition, any person who leaves Israel before seven days has passed since receiving their second vaccine shot will be required to enter isolation according to ministry guidelines upon their return, the ministry said.
The rules will apply to all incoming travelers, including those who booked two-way flights that keep them out of the country for more than 72 hours.
Exceptions will be granted on a case-by-case basis.
Despite the mutation, the number of confirmed daily cases of coronavirus continues to decline.
There were 7,326 new cases Friday, the Health Ministry reported on Saturday night, with 8.8% of the people screened testing positive, representing a slight decrease from the days before. Some 8.9% of people screened Thursday were found to have the virus, versus 9% on Wednesday and 9.2% before that.
However, the ministry reported that only 85,739 people were tested for coronavirus on Friday and 81,828 on Thursday, as opposed to the more than 100,000 in previous days that resulted in 10,000 cases.
The highest rates of infection remain among the ultra-Orthodox community, where the British and potentially other mutations are active. Jerusalem had the highest number of active cases with 15,197, Bnei Brak had 5,319 and Modi’in Illit had 3,119.
The percentage of positive cases should continue to go down, since the reproduction rate – the “R” or number of people each sick person infects – has finally dropped to below one in all sectors.
As the numbers decline, the hope is that the lockdown will be lifted as announced, on January 31.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash said on Thursday in an interview with Channel 12 that he is optimistic that no further extension of the closure will be needed.
“The data is encouraging,” Ash said. “We hope that the trend will continue.”
There are currently 76,783 active cases of coronavirus in Israel.