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Israel to toughen border inspections in effort to block entry of coronavirus

Israel on Sunday toughened its actions to prevent the arrival of the new Chinese coronavirus to the country, with the Health Ministry calling on anyone who recently returned from China to stay home.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman chaired a meeting with ministry officials and professionals to deal with the threat of the virus — which has already spread to many countries — making an appearance in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also holding a meeting on the government’s preparedness.

The meeting convened by Netanyahu was attend by the health, finance, justice, interior, and transportation ministers as well as the head of the National Security Council, among others, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

During the meeting Netanyahu said arrival of the virus in Israel is “unavoidable” and instructed the Israel Institute for Biological Research to prepare a vaccine to the coronavirus in case it needs to be mass-produced.

The National Security Council will oversee inter-ministerial preparations, the prime minister said, in order to cut bureaucracy.

At midday Sunday, new orders came into effect barring tourists who had been in China over the past two weeks from entering the country.

“We aren’t taking any unnecessary chances,” Netanyahu said Saturday. “The virus is already in five continents and 25 countries. We are aware that we cannot fully prevent the virus entering [Israel]. So we are preparing in advance for how to contend with the virus after it first arrives.”

Litzman on Thursday announced that Israel will not allow further flights into the country from China amid concerns over the spread of the virus. The national carrier, El Al, on Thursday joined multiple other airlines in pausing flights to China due to the outbreak of the virus.

Litzman told the Ynet news site that inspections would be introduced at Ben Gurion Airport, “but we won’t necessarily publish by what means.”

“By law, we are demanding a two-week isolation,” he added. “Other countries aren’t letting people reach their homes. We are not at that stage. We prefer that they stay at home and not have physical contact with anyone. We will find the means to enforce this.”

“The virus is already on five continents and… it is likely only a matter of time until it reaches us,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director-general of the Health Ministry, tweeted Friday.

The Foreign Ministry said Friday that in light of the WHO announcement, it recommended that Israelis not travel to China until the emergency is declared over and that those in China consider leaving the country.

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global emergency and has warned that governments need to prepare for “domestic outbreak control” if the disease spreads in their countries.

Nations have taken extraordinary measures to build virtual fortresses against the disease. In addition to Israel, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand also banned foreign nationals from visiting if they had been in China recently, and warned their own citizens against traveling there.

Mongolia, Russia and Nepal closed their land borders, while Papua New Guinea went as far as to ban anyone arriving from ports or airports across Asia.

The containment measures may have slowed the spread of the virus, but not stopped it. Britain, Russia and Sweden this weekend confirmed their first infections.

China’s acting ambassador to Israel caused a stir Sunday when he noted that China had let Jews into the country during the Holocaust and expressed hope that Israel would not close the door to his countrymen in the face of the spread of a deadly virus.

Israel, like other countries, has, over the past week, barred entry to arrivals from China. The measures came as the death toll from the Wuhan coronavirus topped 300, with over 14,000 infected, and the first death outside of China was reported in the Philippines.

In a press conference in Tel Aviv, acting ambassador Dai Yuming had said of the Israeli ban: “I feel bad and sad. Because it actually recalled [for] me, the old days, the old stories, that happened in World War II, the Holocaust.

“Many Jewish [people] were refused when they tried to seek assistance. Only very, very few countries opened their doors, one of them is China. I hope Israel will never close their door to the Chinese,” he said.

Referring to Chinese rescue efforts of Jews he added: “In the darkest days of the Jewish people, we didn’t close the door on them. I hope Israel will not close the door on the Chinese.”

He was apparently referring to some 30,000 European Jews who between 1933 to 1941 escaped Nazi persecution by traveling to Shanghai, according to UN figures, citing the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Chinese embassy to Israel clarified later that it never intended to compare Israel’s travel restrictions for Chinese travelers amid the coronavirus scare to the Holocaust.

“Regarding the press conference held today by the Chinese embassy in Israel, we would like to clarify that there was no intention whatsoever to compare the dark days of the Holocaust with the current situation and the efforts taken by the Israeli government to protect its citizens,” the Chinese embassy said in a statement conveyed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“We would like to apologize if someone understood our message the wrong way,” it said.

Israel has halted flights from China and toughened border restrictions over fears the new virus could spread to the Jewish state.

As a result of the restrictions, some 1,500 Chinese tourists already in the country are now stranded in Israel, most of then confined to their hotel rooms, Channel 12 news reported Sunday.

Some of the tourists are hoping to return to home in the coming days by catching connecting flights from Israel to other countries that are still flying to China.

Header: Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (2L) and Health Ministry officials during a meeting on the threat of the Chinese coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, February 2, 2020. (Health Ministry/courtesy)