Israel's Health Ministry expanded the restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on Sunday, and announced that travelers returning from Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau will have to remain quarantined at home for 14 days after returning.
Until now, those returning from those areas had to remain at home only if they showed symptoms of the virus. Travelers returning from China had already been required to remain at home for two weeks, even without symptoms. The decision was made after a situational assessment Sunday morning by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and a team of experts.
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According to the ministry announcement, travelers coming to Israel from those areas, “Must not go out in public and must stay away from public places, including educational institutions, workplaces, public transportation, stores and places of entertainment, hospitals and clinics, for a period of 14 days from their stay in those [countries].
“In the event of one or more of the following symptoms: fever, coughing or shortness of breath, one must go to a doctor or the emergency room, and let the clinic or the emergency room know in advance that the patient is coming. Even in other medical situations that require treatment, one should inform the medical staff in advance by phone. In every case one must cover one’s nose and mouth with a surgical mask or other available cloth, and avoid traveling by public transportation,” the recommendations said.
The announcement is expected to impact Israeli national carrier El Al, the only airline with direct flights between Tel Aviv and Bangkok. The company announced last week that it was planning to significantly reduce flights on the line, after many travellers cancelled their bookings for fear of catching the illness. But with these new restrictions in place, the financial viability of running the connection will be seriously jeopardized, especially as crew would also be slapped with a 14-day quarantine.
Thailand's tourism agency estimates 196,000 Israelis travel to the country every year, 22,000 of them on El Al, according the carrier’s statistics. Israelis spend an average of 17 days in the country. Thailand is one of Israel's favorite holiday destinations, especially during the Passover holidays, when Israelis are able to take more than a week vacation.
Earlier Sunday, the Health Ministry reported that three of the fifteen Israelis on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan have contracted the coronavirus. The Japanese health authorities reported that 356 passengers on the ship, which has been quarantined since February 3, have come down with the illness.
Chinese authorities optimistically reported a slowdown in the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19. There were 2,009 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, down from more than 2,600 new cases the previous day. Health ministry spokesperson Mi Feng said this showed that the authorities were able to treat patients more quickly, preventing cases from becoming critical.
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The new cases brought the total to 68,500 in mainland China, with 1,665 deaths, including 143 reported on Sunday. Outside China, more than 500 cases have been confirmed, mostly of people who travelled from Chinese cities, with five deaths.
The first fatality in Europe was reported on Saturday, an 80-year-old Chinese man who died at a Paris hospital. Four others died in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan respectively.
Robin Thompson, an expert in mathematical epidemiology at Britain's University of Oxford, said that with nearly 50 cases in Europe, a death was not surprising, but there still had not been "sustained person-to-person transmission in Europe".
Chinese Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said the slowing rate of new cases was proof that curbs on travel and other drastic measures were having an impact at last: "The effect of the coronavirus controls is appearing," Mi told reporters.
The coronavirus, thought to have emerged at a wildlife market in the central province of Hubei, has presented the ruling Communist Party with a huge challenge.
Its response has included putting Hubei and its capital Wuhan - a city of 11 million people - on virtual lockdown. Restrictions were tightened further in Hubei on Sunday with vehicles, apart from essential services, banned from the roads and companies told to stay shut until further notice.