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Is Israel’s airport COVID-19 fiasco about to end?

CM 14/09/2021

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Can Prime Minister Naftali Bennett end the Ben-Gurion Airport COVID-19 fiasco – which has left Israelis stranded abroad and prevented foreigners from entering Israel even for weddings, bar mitzvahs, births and deaths?
Israel seems to be preparing to make it easier for more tourists to enter, after banning many of them from entering the country over the last 18 months in an effort to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also planting the seeds for a data-sharing program that could ultimately enable the vaccinations of foreign nationals to be recognized in the Jewish state.
On Tuesday, the Health Ministry made two announcements in the Knesset that marked what appears to be a change in policy.

First, Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Nachman Ash confirmed that foreigners could be released from quarantine under the same conditions as Israelis if they take a serological test to confirm the presence of sufficient antibodies and call the ministry hotline.
Then, senior Health Ministry official Ilana Gans explained that Israel was working toward signing a data-sharing agreement with the European Union and some US states that would make an Israeli’s vaccination record available abroad with the simple scanning of a QR code. It would also allow Israel to easily confirm the inoculation of citizens who were jabbed outside the country. Such a program would alleviate the need for validation via a serological test.
While the agreements are not final and would apparently not at first apply to foreigners vaccinated abroad, this would be a logical next step.
The failure of the government to effectively manage Ben-Gurion Airport over the past 18 months played a major role in exacerbating the coronavirus crisis that ultimately led to many of the more than 7,400 COVID-19 deaths. It also destroyed Israel’s tourism industry, which in 2019 constituted 5.9% of the country’s GDP.
While other countries with similar physical attributes to Israel implemented controls that enabled safe foreign travel, Israel’s previous government ignored repeated recommendations to set effective policies.
By January, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, then a Knesset member, called the airport “a failure of Yom Kippur War dimensions,” in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
The fiasco began almost at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waited five days to shut Israel’s borders to American travelers, resulting in more than 70% of the coronavirus infections during the first wave.
By mid-March, Netanyahu boldly barred all foreigners from entering the country, allowing only non-Israeli nationals who could prove their ability to isolate in accordance with Health Ministry directives at the time into Israel – a policy he continually tightened.
For more than a year, with rare exceptions only diplomats, people with special connections and those with funds to operate private aircrafts could visit.
It was only in April 2021 that Israel began granting entry permits to vaccinated first-degree relatives of people living in Israel. But even then, the process of entry was complicated and convoluted, and many struggled to get permission to come.
Tour guides and operators celebrated in June 2021 when the government announced that Israel would open up to selected small groups of vaccinated tourists. The pilot program was supposed to expand in July to allow vaccinated individual tourists, but was continually pushed off – first to August 1, then indefinitely – and there is still no plan for allowing individual tourists back into the country.
Moreover, the group tours were short lived, because as infection rose, the government labeled the majority of the world “red” or “orange,” effectively banning incoming travel from most countries or requiring people to isolate a minimum of seven days upon entry.

The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)The departure hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on January 25, 2021. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

At the beginning of the month, Israel re-defined the term “fully vaccinated” based on research showing that Pfizer vaccines waned around five months after inoculation but that a third shot provides a fresh dose of antibodies. Around the same time, officials agreed to relaunch small group tourism.
Beginning September 19, individuals traveling in a group of five or more – arriving and departing together and who are fully vaccinated – can enter the country under the same rules as Israelis. In general, this means they have to be fully vaccinated with two or three doses completed within the last five months with vaccines approved by the US or European Union (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson and Johnson). They must take a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival and again at the airport. If it all aligns, these travelers can leave isolation as soon as they receive a negative result or within 24 hours, whichever comes first.
Of course, tourists from “red” countries are still not allowed in. And there is still no plan for reopening to individual tourists who are not first-degree relatives of Israelis or do not receive special permission to enter the country.
Israelis have struggled, too.
The previous administration would willy-nilly relabel countries red, sometimes even the night before a change would go into effect. Israelis were forced to cancel trips or face being stuck abroad or in isolation if the country to which they were traveling to or from was now deemed too infected with coronavirus.
And there was also the nearly two-month period between late January and March that the airport was locked down and only humanitarian or other special travel permits were granted. 
Even this government, although it always warned travelers a week in advance, labeled some of the countries to which Israelis travel most as red, such as the United Kingdom, making it forbidden to visit family and friends.
Israel is a melting pot of immigrants from around the world, so stopping travel has meant missed births, bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.
Business deals were cancelled. Tour guides in the best-case scenarios switched careers. Others, in the worst case, committed suicide, unable to support their families through the pandemic.
THE ANNOUNCEMENTS made Tuesday in the Knesset are small and preliminary steps. But they demonstrate that the new administration is thinking strategically about the airport.
They show that Bennett is striving to align his words with his actions.
Bennett, when he sat in the opposition, condemned Netanyahu for locking down Israel when he should have instead learned to better test, trace and isolate. As prime minister, he is striving to learn to live alongside the virus.
So, too, he believes that Israel does not need to stop all travel into the country if it properly manages the airport. And as he puts policies in place to do so, he is opening up Israel more and more.
Of course, there are concerns.
First, Israel is still experiencing around 10,000 new daily cases. The reproduction rate is fluctuating as schools resume and families celebrate the holidays, praying and eating together.
Moreover, the majority of countries around the world have not even inoculated their healthcare workers and most vulnerable populations, let alone the rest of their citizens. This means that not only will the pandemic be prolonged, but there is a higher risk of new variants appearing – potentially variants even more vaccine-resistant than the Delta variant.
Finally, Israel has still not managed to properly enforce isolation on those who return from abroad. Nearly a million unvaccinated Israelis – as well as millions of others who were vaccinated more than six months ago and have not received a third shot – are more vulnerable to infection. With Israel Police only able to check on 6,000 isolated people per day, it is likely that huge percentages of travelers will continue to break isolation and put all Israelis at risk.
Nonetheless, many believe that now is the time to rethink Israel’s tourism and travel strategy.
Israel is a small country. It needs the rest of the world for business and pleasure. Israel relies on tourism as a means of economic development, but also for connection and continuity.
The government appears to be heading toward developing a way to bring Ben-Gurion back to life. When it does, Israel will truly be living alongside the coronavirus.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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