Israel has decided to scrap its "red list" of destinations with high COVID-19 infection rates, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday, effectively fully opening the skies as of midnight.
The ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, said travel restrictions on all countries are lifted, as local omicron infections – which contributed to a record number of new cases confirmed on Wednesday – render travel bans futile in preventing the spread of coronavirus.
The decision, pending government approval, applies to Israeli citizens or residents, as well as foreign tourists, who have to be either vaccinated or recovered to enter Israel.
Israel therefore will permit travel to and from countries that on Thursday were still on its list of "red" destinations. These include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Turkey, France, Switzerland, Mexico, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Tanzania and Nigeria.
Ash also warned that Israel will soon reach 50,000 coronavirus cases a day, as recent data shows a surge in infections. Though hospitalizations are increasing, Nash noted that the number of critically ill patients connected to ventilators remains stable.
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Ash added that most cases of serious illness belong to the delta variant, but as "the wave progresses, omicron will take over" infections.
The former "red" countries will be moved to Israel's "orange list," a collection of countries to which the Health Ministry recommends against unnecessary travel due to high coronavirus infection rates.
All vaccinated or recovered travelers from these countries must quarantine for 24 hours upon arrival in Israel, or until they receive a negative test result. Unvaccinated arrivals must receive two negative tests: one upon arrival, and one after seven days of quarantine. High-risk groups must receive a negative PCR result to exit quarantine, while the rest of the population need only take a rapid antigen test.
New plan for schools
Meanwhile, the health and education ministries said on Thursday that a new plan for schools that prioritizes in-person teaching will go into effect on Sunday.
The statement said that if a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19, students who are vaccinated or recovering from the virus will be required to undergo an antigen test and remain in isolation if they test positive. Students who are not vaccinated or recovering from the disease will remain in quarantine even if they test negative.
This is a change from the current regulations that stipulated that entire classes or schools go into quarantine if a student tests positive, effectively making school regulations identical to those in other public places.
The government's statement also said that mask-wearing in schools and pre-schools will remain compulsory, and that visitors to those institutions will be required to show a Green Pass.
Education workers without a Green Pass will be required to show negative test results at the entrance.
“A Health Ministry district doctor will be authorized to order the closure of a school or pre-school in consultation with the appropriate district manager in the Education Ministry,” the statement said.
Israel saw a record-breaking number of new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, reaching an all-time high of 16,115 – more than double the number of new cases recorded just a few days earlier on Sunday.
The R number – the average number of people each coronavirus carrier infects – has risen to 1.99, the highest since June. Ash noted that this means daily infection rates will double every 2.7 days.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced changes to its testing requirements amid a spike in demand for PCR swab tests. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced that beginning on Friday, vaccinated, healthy Israelis under the age of 60 who have come into contact with coronavirus carriers can take a rapid home test to be exempt from isolation, thereby avoiding long lines at testing sites. According to the new guidelines, the ministry will reserve PCR tests for people aged 60 and older, as well as for high-risk groups.