Health Ministry sees 'green countries' isolation waiver

Lone passenger at Ben Gurion Airport  / Photo: Reuters

Prof. Itamar Grotto says incoming passengers to Israel from low infection countries need not undergo isolation. But the plan faces many obstacles.

The unexpected remarks by Ministry of Health associate director general Prof. Itamar Grotto about Israelis returning from 'green' countries (low Covid-19 infection rates) not requiring 14-days self-isolation have been welcomed by the tourism and aviation industry.

However, Prof. Grotto added that the matter, "requires organizing and changing instructions and other factors and it is not something that can happen tomorrow morning."

A major obstacle is that Israel is a 'red' country with a high infection rate and most 'green' countries either don't allow Israeli passport holders in at all, or require them to undergo 14 days self-isolation. The few 'green' countries like Bulgaria and Montenegro that do allow Israelis in require them to have undergone a Covid-19 test.

First in line: Businesspeople

On the one hand, Prof. Grotto's remarks have been met with a sigh of relief because it is an issue that has been neglected and is now in the headlines. The matter will be discussed by the Knesset Coronavirus Committee next Wednesday, August 4 and many representatives of government ministries will be taking part. On the other hand, Prof. Grotto's comments raise many question marks. In 2019, Israelis made 9.2 million trips abroad, nearly double the number of visits to Israel by overseas tourists. Israel may be crying out for foreign tourists but it is clear that removing obstacles will lead mainly to outbound journeys, with businesspeople expected to be the first to rush overseas. On the other hand, the tens of thousands of orthodox Israelis who fly to Uman in Ukraine to celebrate the High Holidays at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman Breslev are being pressured to forego the pilgrimage this year.

The pressure to reopen the skies was ramped up at the beginning of the week when chairman of the Israel Airports Authority workers committee Pinchas Idan met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about reopening the skies and came out of the meeting optimistic, saying there was "light at the end of the tunnel."

Also earlier this week, Minister of Transport Miri Regev spoke of a plan by which Israelis returning from 'green' low infection countries would only spend five days in isolation, while those returning from 'red' high infection countries would also require a Covid-19 test. The plan was criticized by those who said that the dynamic situation means countries can quickly change from green to red, an example being Spain, which has started experiencing a new wave of the virus this week, and that giving all returnees from abroad a test would be a more sensible way forward.

The idea of a 'medical passport' rather than red and green countries is gaining momentum worldwide. A series of tests before and after traveling would give both passengers and those around them a greater sense of health security. Some airports worldwide have already set up testing infrastructures including laboratories and there are plans to issue a tender for such facilities at Ben Gurion airport.

At the moment the Ministry of Health does not allow Israelis to take health fund virus tests for the purposes of travelling, so that private tests must be taken costing between NIS 600 and NIS 1,000, depending on the urgency of receiving the results. The Ministry of Health says the subject of subsidized tests for tourists is being examined and clearly if the skies are to reopen the policy must change, or at least the cost of a test must come down significantly. As part of the tender, Ben Gurion airport management is talking about $100 per test with it possibly falling to $30 over time.

There may be 'light at the end of the tunnel' but many logistical questions remain unresolved.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 30, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Lone passenger at Ben Gurion Airport  / Photo: Reuters
Lone passenger at Ben Gurion Airport / Photo: Reuters
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