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Israel has All but Banned International Air Travel, but How Long Can that Continue?

The issue of allowing travelers to enter Israel through Ben-Gurion International Airport was on the government’s agenda from the first day of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was managed poorly, enabling thousands of infected people to enter the country, including those who were carrying the highly infectious British and South African strains of the virus.

“Israel scored an own-goal at two critical points during the pandemic whose effects were difficult to control once it happened,” said Tanya Attias, the CEO of Medint, a consulting company retained by the Health Ministry to examine what policies other countries have been undertaking.

“Those were delaying a ban on air travel and a premature resumption of it.”

Over the last year, policies on entering and exiting Israel have changed repeatedly, exposing the country to imported cases of COVID. Finally the cabinet approved closing Ben-Gurion, the country’s main international airport, last month. The restrictions aimed, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it, to hermetically seal Israel’s borders.

But that policy didn’t last very long.

After coming under withering criticism that it had left thousands of Israelis stranded abroad, the cabinet over the weekend approved changes to the policy. Ben-Gurion remains mostly closed, but now there is a long list of people exempted from the travel restrictions.

All Israeli citizens now have the right to return home.

Under the new rules, which are in effect for the next two weeks, the ban on Israeli citizens and residents to leave remains in effect, except if a special government committee exempts them.

Exemptions will be given for those seeking urgent medical treatment abroad, to attend a funeral of a close relation, and to those involved in a legal proceeding, participating in a competitive sports event or an event important to Israel’s foreign relations, or for humanitarian purposes. Business trips, for example, do not count.

Vis-a-vis entering Israel, the rules now allow Israelis living in Israel who left the country before Ben-Gurion was shut to return. Apart from them, others allowed to return are women in a late stage of pregnancy, citizens or permanent residents in need of critical medical care, those coming for funerals or to help family members in need, to attend legal proceedings or for humanitarian purposes.

Non-citizens can enter Israel only for humanitarian or special purposes, such as those involving the country’s foreign relations. Athletes participating in sporting events in Israel and immigrants who can’t delay their arrival also qualify. In any case, they must get approval from the government committee and remain in quarantine for 14 days at a coronavirus hotel.

The question remains what will be the policy after the two weeks are up.

Will the airport be subject to the new restrictions again or will there be newer, less strict rules? Will the requirement to stay in a coronavirus hotel remain in place or will it be dropped and reimposed from time to time as in the past? How will testing upon entry to Israel be conducted, including for the new variants of COVID? How will those who are exempted by the government committee and not required to stay at a coronavirus hotel be monitored?

Another critical question is the exemption from quarantine of those who have had both doses of the COVID vaccine, despite concerns that they might still be at risk of infection.

At a meeting last week of the Knesset Constitution Committee, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, said that those coming back from abroad who are inoculated don’t need to go into quarantine.

But, she added, “we are re-examining the need for quarantining those who returned from abroad due to the new strain and cases of recurrent morbidity in both people who have already fallen ill and have been vaccinated. The risk of infection is not zero, and we have to manage these risks wisely.”

What are other countries doing?

In recent weeks, with the appearance of the new, more virulent strains, many countries have decided to tighten restrictions on airports. The Medint report found a wide range of policies.

Countries that have adopted the most severe measures have almost entirely sealed their borders to entry and exits. This includes both Australia and Britain, which only allow people to come and go only for exceptional reasons. Australia requires travellers entering the country to go into quarantine for 14 days at a hotel. Other countries, including Germany, and the United States, have been much more liberal and require only self-quarantine.

This doesn’t mean that all of the more liberal countries are taking the coronavirus less seriously. Germany, for example, imposes stiff fines of up to 25,000 euros ($30,000) for quarantine violations.

Some governments limit entry only from countries where more virulent strains of COVID are present.

The U.S., for example, bars entry to citizens of Brazil and the European Union; Germany bars U.K., Irish, Brazilian and Portuguese nationals. In any case, all the countries surveyed require people arriving to show they tested negative for the coronavirus before they can enter.

“The entire world understands that the starting point for gaining control of morbidity inside the borders of a country is entry and exit,” Attias explained.

“Even if Israel decides to reopen the skies soon, it must establish very clear, strict and tough policies because if it allows air travel to resume in an unorganized way it will cause irreversible damage and create another cycle of contagion … It’s going to take time before you can travel between countries the way we have been accustomed.”

Source: Ronny Linder – HAARETZ