The Health Ministry will evaluate its testing policy at Ben-Gurion Airport in light of the declining rate of COVID infections, with some experts calling for abolishing testing at the airport altogether. However, a meeting on the matter has not yet been scheduled and it is unclear what new policy, if any, will be instituted.
Health officials plan to assess the situation by the end of the week after summarizing "the situation during the holidays, the percentage of positive tests, and data on variants that entered the country," according to a ministry official. Testing at entry points into Israel, the official said “are intended to identify the entry of new variants from abroad and this is certainly very important. Will sampling give the answer? We’ll have to examine this in the coming week.”
According to ministry officials, in the near future, the ministry will examine various means to partially reduce testing requirements, whether by testing a sample of people entering the country or officially reducing the list of destination countries that require COVID testing upon arrival in Israel.
“A move to sample testing requires relating to a number of issues. For example, the size of the sample – what rate of people entering the country will be sampled? Who will pay for the tests? And what happens if a person chosen to undergo sample testing refuses? All these are questions that the experts must discuss in terms of this policy,” a ministry official said.
Israel is one of only a handful of countries that require all incoming passengers to undergo COVID tests upon arrival. Most countries now make do with travelers presenting negative PCR tests taken up to 72 hours before the flight.
Recently, about 10 percent of new COVID infections were detected among arrivals from abroad. However, experts who support continuing such testing note that it is less important to track how many arriving passengers test positive for the virus, but rather how many are infected with new variants.
Passengers arriving at Ben-Gurion airport are currently required to take a COVID test, which costs 80 shekels ($24.50) or 60 shekels if paid in advance, and to remain in isolation until a negative result is obtained or 24 hours have elapsed. Unlike the policy within Israel, sampling of confirmed cases among arriving passengers are sent for sequencing at special laboratories, to check whether a new variant has entered the country, or whether the variant is known and common in Israel.
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Last week, the director of Ichilov Hospital, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, formerly Israel’s COVID czar, tweeted that testing at Ben-Gurion is wasteful and unnecessarily troublesome to people. “In almost no countries [airports] do they ask for a vaccination certificate, Green Pass, PCR or antigen testing. That’s right, because the addition of this to coronavirus infections is very marginal,” he wrote. “If everything is smart and right and justified throughout Europe and America, why in Israel are we staying with this,” he wrote, adding that in light of the cost of the tests, people “will be paying 60 million shekels to comply with an out-of-date policy.” His remarks, considering the country's low infection rates and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis flying abroad, sparked lively public debate.
Ministry experts say that changing or relieving Israel's isolation policy is not on the agenda at this time. The existing policy applies mainly to people who test positive for the virus, requiring them to quarantine for seven days (which may be reduced to five days after two negative tests), and to their young children, who are ineligible for vaccination due to their age and cannot be isolated alone.
According to ministry officials, the fact that a policy change is not on the agenda at the moment doesn’t mean that it won’t be relevant later. “It’s not on the agenda right now, but I believe that this too will come up sometime, but it’s hard to say when,” the official said.