Israel will end restrictions on international travel in the coming hours, director-general Nachman Ash said Thursday, as coronavirus rates in the country spiked to record levels, making the impact of the travel bans negligible.
All countries will be removed from a so-called red list starting at midnight, reopening the skies to dozens of destinations where travel had been severely curtailed in bid to slow the Omicron variant from infiltrating the country.
Among the places where two-way travel may now resume are the US, Britain and Turkey.
Cancelation of the red country list still requires government approval and authorization from the Knesset Constitution Law and Justice Committee, Channel 12 News reported.
In recent days, coronavirus case numbers have soared past 10,000 a day, and officials now view the travel ban, credited with giving Israel time to prepare for the larger outbreak, as obsolete.
Ash explained that data shows less than five percent of the 72,000 active coronavirus cases in the country came from abroad, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
“We still recommend avoiding unnecessary flights. Morbidity is high worldwide and these transitions are a risk factor for infection,” Ash said at a press briefing.
Ash predicted that in three days there will be 30,000 new cases a day in Israel and within a week, the number will hit 50,000. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has previously dismissed such predictions as scaremongering with no scientific basis.
At the end of November, Israel closed its borders to foreign nationals in an attempt to hold off the Omicron variant and drew up a list of countries with high COVID morbidity that Israelis were prohibited to visit. At one point 70 countries were added to the red list, including the United States, Turkey, and most of Europe and Africa.
The list had been slated to be whittled down considerably starting January 9, though the US and Britain would have still remained on it.
It was unclear how Ash’s directive would affect unvaccinated travelers. On Monday, the cabinet said foreign travelers who have not been vaccinated or recovered will still not be permitted to enter Israel, regardless of origin.
Omicron, first detected in South Africa, is more contagious but causes fewer cases of severe illness and death than previous variants — especially among vaccinated people.
“Our estimation is that most of the seriously ill patients at the moment have the Delta [variant] which is again starting to raise its head,” Ash said, referring to a strain of COVID that caused an earlier wave of infections in Israel last year.
Last week, Horowitz said that Israel would soon remove many of the restrictions on airline travel to and from the country.
“The moment infections are spreading, there is no point in stopping entry from abroad,” Horowitz told Kan in an interview at the time. “The opening of [Israel’s] skies won’t take much time, possibly next week.”
Israel had reopened to foreign tourism in early November, for the first time since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, but at the end of that month once again banned foreign travelers to stem the Omicron spread.
Curbs on travel drew anger from those in the tourism industry, which has been severely battered by COVID restrictions. Demonstrations were held at Ben Gurion Airport and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman caused an outcry when he said that those working in tourism should find new jobs.
Health Ministry figures released Thursday showed that a record number of new cases were diagnosed the day before, the second day in a row that saw the record broken.
The 16,115 cases diagnosed on Wednesday marked the highest number of new infections reported in a single day since the start of the pandemic.
There were 134 patients with serious symptoms, the ministry said.
Ash’s prediction of the rapid rise in cases came as a top expert advising the government says he expected up to half a million Israelis to become infected by the end of next week.
Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute told Radio 103FM that the figures seen thus far — daily cases doubling every 2.7 days — match the experts’ earlier predictions based on data from other countries, adding that the pace is similar no matter what measures governments are taking.
“If over the past week there were about 60,000 confirmed cases — and we definitely didn’t find everyone, so in practice we definitely crossed the 100,000-case barrier, and we are seeing numbers double at least twice a week — then I predict that between now and next week half a million more Israelis could get infected,” Segal said.
He added that in two or three weeks, the outbreak will peak and then swiftly fade away due to widespread immunity among the population.