Thousands of Israelis Return From COVID Hotspot Moscow, Flouting Travel Ban

Dozens of the returning Israelis tested positive for coronavirus while Health Ministry officials say they were pressed to remove Russia from the list of high-risk countries

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Arrivals hall in Ben Gurion International Airport
Arrivals hall in Ben Gurion International AirportCredit: Hadas Parush

Almost 5,000 Israelis returned from Moscow over the last month, even as the Russian capital was undergoing a surge in COVID-19 cases, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported Tuesday.

Thirty-one of the returning passengers tested positive for the virus.

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According to Health Ministry directives, travel to high-risk countries must be approved by the ministry's exemptions committee, but in fact the ban is barely enforced. Health Ministry officials revealed to Yedioth that they were under pressure to remove Russia from the high-risk list during the Netanyahu administration.

New cases have surged across Russia and particularly in Moscow, which on Saturday registered a record 9,120 daily cases, Reuters reported.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced on Monday that Israel will issue large fines for Israelis who travel to barred countries, which include Russia, India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa. The new regulations are due to come into effect in the coming days.

While "the situation in Israel is different from the rest of the world," Horowitz said, "[We] have to do whatever is necessary to contain the spread of strains." 

The announcement came as Israel is experiencing several local coronavirus outbreaks. In two schools, nine staff members contracted COVID-19 even though they are vaccinated.  

Due to the uptick in coronavirus cases, the town of Binyamina-Givat Ada in central Israel has been declared a "yellow" zone, with a moderate coronavirus infection rate, on the so-called traffic light system developed by the Health Ministry.

This was the first local authority to be defined as such since May, when all cities and zones in Israel were declared green.

On Monday afternoon, after a situation assessment on the new outbreak, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the Israel Defense Forces, Home Front Command and defense establishment to prepare to renew its coronavirus testing efforts, and not to close the contact tracing department as originally planned.

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