An Israeli expert panel recommended on Tuesday a fourth shot of the coronavirus vaccine for people 60 and older and healthcare workers, in a decision hailed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as "great news" that will "help us make it through the omicron wave" spreading globally.
The decision by the Health Ministry panel is pending approval by the ministry's director general, which is expected within days, when the Health Ministry releases clearer guidelines on a fourth shot.
Israel was one of the first countries to vaccinate its population early this year and then carried out the world’s first booster campaign over the summer.
Also on Tuesday, Israel's COVID cabinet approved a series of new measures, mostly targeting crowd sizes in shopping centers, in a bid to curb the spread of the omicron variant.
Shoppers will be restricted to one customer per 15 square meters (160 square feet) and be required to show proof of full vaccination for entry to stores more than 100 square meters (1,076 square feet). The Green Pass will also be required of employees in large stores.
Mall food stalls will provide service to Green Pass customers only, and indoor dining will be banned.
Places that provide essential services will be exempt from Green Pass requirements however, and current limited occupancy measures (one customer per seven square meters) will continue.
- Israel’s Year of COVID Vaccines: Fervor, Fatigue and Uncertainty
- Bennett: 'Omicron Is Here, the Fifth Wave Has Begun'
- Israel Bans Travel to U.S., Canada, Eight Other Countries Over Omicron Surge
The government also approved a proposal to limit physical presence of employees in the public sector. For a month, as of Sunday, only half of employees will be allowed to come into the workplace, while the others will work remotely.
Bennett said at the start of the cabinet meeting that coronavirus infections in Israel are expected to double every three days due to omicron. "The public should be aware that a dramatic increase in infection is expected," Bennett said, adding that according to his estimate, "it will come very quickly."
Ministers argued over the seriousness of omicron, with some claiming that though it is contagious, it doesn't lead to severe cases or deaths.
Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman opposed new restrictions during the meeting, saying "it has no place at the moment." The measures would require the state to compensate businesses and individuals, he said.
"I don't see it having any greater effect at the moment than the flu," Lieberman said of the omicron variant.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said there cannot be restrictions without compensation measures, saying, "We offer health recommendations, but we will not allow harm to people's livelihoods. If there is no compensation, we cannot proceed with necessary steps."
While the severity of the highly contagious omicron variant is still unknown, Bennett advised Israelis, especially the "exposed" population of unvaccinated children and booster refusers, to get immunized, wear a mask and social distance to avoid serious illness.
He added that he was "impatiently waiting for the Health Ministry to approve giving a fourth vaccine to the elderly and immunocompromised populations."
Israel has confirmed 170 new cases of the omicron variant, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases of the highly infectious variant to 341.
Israel is quickly expanding its list of "red countries," banned high-risk travel destinations, in order to slow the import of the virus from abroad. As of Tuesday, Israelis are largely forbidden from visiting vast swaths of Africa, Europe and North America.