Israel on Sunday decided to close its borders to foreign tourists and re-authorise a controversial cellphone tracking programme in a bid to stem the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said, in a statement, adding that the measure would take effect on Sunday evening.
Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine themselves for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not. It was only four weeks ago that Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid.
The measure were decided by a cabinet committee tasked with overseeing Israel’s Covid response. Bennett’s government has also re-activated a controversial programme initiated under his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu early in the pandemic that allows the powerful Shin Bet internal security agency to track cellphones as a viral containment measure.
Tracking “will be in order to locate verified (Omicron) cases and thereby cut the chains of infection,” Bennett’s office said, adding the programme will take effect on Thursday.
The tracking “is restricted only to verified cases of the new strain.
“There will be no widespread and sweeping use for all verified cases as was done in previous waves,” it added, stressing the Shin Bet will also not monitor quarantine violations.
The Shin Bet tracking programme faced legal challenges from civil liberties groups after its introduction last year, before it was halted.
The government’s latest announcement came as Jews mark the start at sundown of the eight-day-long Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. It already imposed a series of emergency measures late Friday to protect its heavily vaccinated population after identifying a case of the new Covid-19 variant.
The health ministry said the new strain that was first detected by South Africa was discovered in a person who had arrived from Malawi.
Other suspected cases are currently being traced, authorities have said. Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant — now dubbed Omicron — with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta or three for Beta.
The strain was of “serious concern” and had been blamed for a surge in infections, the authorities in South Africa said. It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, as well as in Belgium.
The new variant “is concerning and has the potential to be very dangerous. We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prome Minister Naftali Bennett said late Friday.
He said Israel would order 10 million PCR test kits. Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year, thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.
Its initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and more than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.
Lolo Ijeoma Njoku Obinwannem News Writer / Nov 29, 2021