Chinese tourists were barred from entering Israel, the Population and Immigration Authority said Saturday, as the country prepares to deal with the growing scare surrounding the deadly coronavirus that has killed at least 259 in China.
Thirty-two Chinese citizens were put on a returning flight shortly after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport on a connecting flight from Moscow.
Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said “We believe it is impossible to prevent the virus from making it to Israel, but we’re trying to delay it as much as possible.”
“When it does happen, we’ll know how to handle it,” he added.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he will convene an emergency meeting on Sunday with ministers and public health officials to prepare for dealing with the virus.
On Friday, Israel's Foreign Ministry recommended against travel to China and urged all residents to leave after suspending all direct flights to the country on Thursday.
Israel will also bar entrance to anyone who has visited China in the last two weeks and is not a citizen or resident of Israel, and has announced plans to order Israelis remain in quarantine for 14 days upon returning from any visits to China.
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However, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said there is a "huge reason to keep official border crossings open" to avoid people entering irregularly and going unchecked for symptoms. "If travel restrictions would be imposed we hope they are as short-lived as possible to try to continue the normal flow of life," he added at a Geneva briefing.
Israel joins a growing list of countries getting ready to contain a domestic outbreak of the disease. According to the latest figures, more than 11,900 have been infected - an estimate which is likely very low, as, in some, symptoms might go unnoticed.
This number surpasses the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The virus’ rapid spread in two months prompted the World Health Organization on Thursday to declare it a global emergency.
Although the fatality rate was dropping compared to what the Chinese authorities reported in late 2019, the infection rate is still likely to climb further.
Travel within China and internationally is under more and more stringent restrictions. Several countries have tasked their military forces to evacuate their citizens from the worst affected areas, where citizens live under virtual lockdown.
The Associated Press contributed to this report