‘Every Country is Red’: COVID-19 Variant Changes Int’l Travel
British, Danish and South African travelers forbidden entry to Israel, while some European countries also bar Britons
Starting Sunday, Israel is lighting up the entire world in red. Not in honor of Christmas later this week, but rather in dealing with the potential dangers a new variant of the COVID-19 virus may carry.
On Sunday, Israel’s corona cabinet decided that all arrivals from the UK, Denmark and South Africa will be required to move into “corona hotels” for a 14-day quarantine, or if the returning Israeli completes two negative coronavirus tests, the quarantine will be shortened to 10 days.
This decision came in the wake of reports of a mutated strain, or variant, of the coronavirus currently coursing through the UK.
Some corona hotels have been refitted from tourism to handle those who may have the virus, or are asymptomatic, while others are for those having the virus but not requiring hospitalization. Residents may not leave the premises until the quarantine period is complete and coronavirus tests have come back negative.
Already on Sunday afternoon, just after the corona cabinet approved these measures, passengers disembarking from planes arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport from the UK were boarded unto buses directly on the tarmac, making their way to corona hotels, with police escort.
On Saturday evening, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, part of the Interior Ministry, notified all airlines flying to the country from Britain not to allow non-Israelis, except diplomats, onto the planes. This includes those connecting in the UK to flights bound for Israel.
The Authority also froze entry visas for travelers from Britain, Denmark, Brazil, Australia and South Africa.
The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy have also cut off transportation from the UK, including both flights and train travel. As of press time, Belgium’s measure was to be in place for only 24 hours, starting midnight Sunday night. The Netherlands banned arrivals from the UK until at least the end of 2020, whereas Austria and Italy have not yet provided time frames.
Israel’s Health Ministry also announced that all formerly “green” countries, those where Israelis were allowed to visit without having to isolate upon return, would now be considered “red” and require quarantine.
However, in a page seemingly taken from the Talmud, the ministry created a loophole. Passengers from the newly “red” countries, excluding the UK, Denmark and South Africa, will be allowed back into Israel without quarantine through Saturday, December 26, creating an almost weeklong grace period.
The new mutation is a cause for concern, but not overly so, according to experts.
“It really is too early to jump to any conclusions. You need to remember that all viruses are always mutating and this is natural,” said Prof. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infection, Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
“Also, we have known about this viral mutation since September; it is not new. It may be widespread because of the winter or maybe because it has a chance to spread for three months already or maybe it has improved transmissibility. We do need to be cautious,” Regev-Yochay told The Media Line.
“The mutation may or may not be more pathogenic than other known versions. However, we believe that the vaccines will likely work [against the variant], so everyone must go get themselves inoculated,” she said.
“Frankly, everyone coming from abroad needs to be quarantined. There is a high rate of infection everywhere and every country is red,” Regev-Yochay noted.
Israeli coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash also spoke with caution.
“We are following events with concern. We are looking into the way cells bind with the virus. At the moment we think the vaccine will work on the new mutation as well,” he told Israel’s Walla News on Sunday morning.
This weekend, Israel’s Defense Ministry requested that the IDF’s Home Front Command begin re-opening more corona hotels.
Two hotels are opening in Jerusalem and are designated for those arriving in Israel from the UK, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit stated to The Media Line.
Currently, the Home Front Command operates six active hotels: three recovery ones in Jerusalem, two quarantine hotels in Tel Aviv with a third quarantine hotel in Nordia, near Netanya. Just over 1,300 people are currently at the hotels.
“Corona hotels are really a good thing because they take pressure off having more coronavirus patients in hospitals,” a long-time security guard at a hotel that was turned into a corona hotel, who asked that his name be withheld, told The Media Line.
“The corona hotels are like semi-hospitals, with regular medical visits and corona testing. The people here are taken out of the community [so as not to infect others]. We act as a pressure release for the medical system,” he said.
Still, Israel’s quick decision-making regarding how to handle the COVID-19 variant was not satisfying everyone.
Incoming tour operators, who bring in the visitors who are the country’s fourth-largest source of foreign revenue, acknowledge the government’s need to deal with the pandemic but strongly criticize its decision-making process.
“The government is allowing Israelis back into the country without quarantining from the same countries where tourists are ready to fly in from. But even with our development of a new type of tourism, ‘travel capsules,’ the tourists cannot come,” Yossi Fatael, general manager of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, told The Media Line.
“We thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but the government cut it off. We employ strategic planning – knowing how to plan for the future – but the government has no planning. It is all politics. They have no past, no present, no future,” Fatael said.
Fatael, though, is still optimistic regarding the future.
“The government will have to open the skies around March 2021, after a majority of the country is vaccinated. They owe it to the tour operators, the industry and foreign tourists,” Fatael said.