Israel Considers Shortening Compulsory Coronavirus Quarantine

Health Ministry mulls measure in response to complaints about phone-tracking errors

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Residents of the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak in quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, April 10, 2020.
Residents of the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak in quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, April 10, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel's Health Ministry is considering shortening the mandatory quarantine period for people who are ordered into isolation after location tracking of their cellphone indicated that they had been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.

Among other options, the government is considering shortening the quarantine period from two weeks to 10 days.

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The Health Ministry sent text messages to more than 30,000 people  last week, instructing them to self-quarantine after the location tracking system of the Shin Bet security service reported that they had been in close proximity to confirmed coronavirus patients.

This comes following widespread criticism of citizens’ inability to appeal quarantine orders issued by the Shin Bet. Many who received messages ordering them to enter quarantine said that they were unable to reach the Health Ministry and appeal the order.

Beyond the growing public discontent, the number of people quarantined is set to rise dramatically given the massive rise in infections. Such a rise could damage the economy by removing too many people from the workforce.

In a meeting on Wednesday between representatives of the Shin Bet and senior officials from the health and finance ministries, the idea of shortening the quarantine period was floated. In the urgent meeting, which was held at the request of the Shin Bet, officials also discussed the issue of cellphone tracking.

A two-week quarantine is the standard period adopted by many health organizations, as it is assumed to be the length of time that a COVID-19 patient is contagious. However, recent research has shown that most transmissions occur between four and 10 days from the time of infection.

Last week the Knesset approved temporary legislation allowing digital tracking of coronavirus patients and those they had been in contact with. The head of the security service, Nadav Argaman, has previously objected to using the organization to track citizens’ phones. Argaman expressed concern about complications surrounding employing this technology, possible cases of mistaken identity, revealing the capabilities of the security service and creating tensions with the public.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Kahol Lavan lawmaker Zvi Hauser, said he would “reconsider extending” use of Shin Bet tracking if the Health Ministry does not establish an appeals center for those who received Shin Bet messages. “It’s an important tool, but it is a complementary tool, and can in no way stand as a means with no supervision or accuracy.”

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