Israel to ban travel to US as Covid restrictions widen

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Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel’s health ministry on Sunday recommended banning Israelis from traveling to the United States and added several European countries to its Covid “red list”, aimed at containing the spread of the Omicron variant.

Banning travel to the United States for Israeli citizens and residents would mark a milestone for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, given the hundreds of thousands of dual nationals and the close ties between the countries.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Bennett reiterated he would continue to restrict travel to avoid further blockages.

“We saved the State of Israel precious time,” by limiting travel immediately after the detection of the new variant last month in South Africa, the prime minister said.

“European countries are either blocked or are moving in this direction,” he said, stressing that for Israel “time is running out”.

Lawmakers on Sunday approved an earlier health ministry recommendation barring Israeli citizens and residents from traveling to France, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Finland, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

Britain and Denmark were already on the red list, as were most of Africa.

In addition to the United States, the Department of Health has recommended that Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey be placed on the red list, directives awaiting government approval.

Israeli citizens and residents who are already abroad when a country is declared red must self-quarantine for a week after returning home.

Foreigners from Red List countries are prohibited unless they obtain special permission.

Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel’s national expert panel on Covid-19, told AFP that the travel rules allowed most of life to continue as usual inside Israel.

“The stricter you are to prevent importation and delay local transmission, the more lax you can be in disrupting the economy and daily life,” he said.

He said that in recent weeks, Israeli health authorities have tested every positive Covid case for the presence of the Omicron variant and carried out contact tracing to stop the chains of transmission. As of Friday, 441 cases of Omicron had been detected, he said.

Balicer estimated that Israel would ease its restrictions once local transmission of Omicron began to increase, reducing the relative proportion of cases coming from abroad.

He said it was not yet clear whether the strain posed a risk of serious illness and death.

More than 4.1 million of the estimated 9.3 million people in Israel have received three injections of a coronavirus vaccine, with the country currently giving injections to children aged 5 to 11.

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