Flights may continue arriving to Israel from abroad regardless of whether they came from places with a high rate of coronavirus infections, the cabinet decided on Sunday, withdrawing a vote on blocking all flights.
Anyone arriving from abroad will be required to stay in a quarantine hotel, unless they receive special government approval.
"In exceptional cases, the Health Ministry director-general, in consultation with the Home Front Command, shall have the authority to allow a person returning from abroad be quarantined elsewhere for health [or] humanitarian reasons, or special circumstances, according to conditions to be determined," a statement by the Prime Minister's Office read.
The regulation was set to last until April 22 and may be extended.
Ministers made the determination after weeks of vacillating and uneven enforcement of previous policies amid the spread of COVID-19.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan abstained in the vote, arguing that the vast majority of the arrivals – 95-97% of them – will not be infected by the coronavirus and sent to quarantine hotels, while there are 6,800 confirmed carriers of COVID-19 who are at home, where they can infect other people. Erdan called on the government to ensure that everyone who has the coronavirus and is not able to fully self-isolate be put in a quarantine hotel.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted on the night before the cabinet meeting: "From this moment, the responsibility for intake of travelers from abroad goes to the Defense Ministry and the IDF, and they will be put up in hotels for 14 days. That was decided in a meeting with the prime minister and relevant government ministers. It is a good and right decision."
But two and a half weeks earlier, on March 25, Bennett wrote a very similar tweet: "We in the Defense Ministry will take responsibility for Israelis returning from abroad. Starting on Saturday night, whoever returns from high-risk countries abroad will be checked immediately upon arrival in Israel and will be sent to a quarantine hotel."
Sunday’s cabinet decision came after weeks of changing policies with regard to arrivals to Israel from abroad.
On March 10, anyone who was not a citizen or permanent resident of Israel had to leave, and since then, anyone arriving in Israel must self-quarantine for two weeks.
Bennett and the National Security Council decided on March 25 that everyone arriving in Israel would be checked for the coronavirus. People returning from high-risk locales, such as the US, Italy and Spain, would undergo a coronavirus test as they disembarked from the plane, and would be sent to a quarantine hotel designated for their category. Anyone whose test came back negative could finish the quarantine period at home, and if they tested positive, they would go to a different quarantine hotel with other people infected with coronavirus.
At a cabinet meeting two days later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to allow arrivals to continue to self-quarantine.
On April 1, amid media reports about people arriving without being tested for the virus and subsequent criticism, Netanyahu took a more maximalist approach than Bennett’s, requiring anyone who arrived from abroad to go to a quarantine hotel, not just those coming from high-risk countries.
However, Bennett said it would be logistically impossible and very costly to fully implement the plan, and said only arrivals from New York, where there is a high level of coronavirus infections, would be sent to the hotels at first. Even that proved to be problematic from a legal standpoint, because arriving passengers on a flight did not sign a form in advance agreeing to go to the quarantine hotels. Netanyahu had made the order while their flight from Newark, New Jersey, was already in the air.
As such, the temperature of each person who arrived was checked, and they were asked if they had any COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone with fever or coronavirus symptoms was sent to Magen David Adom for further care; MDA decided whether people need to go into self-isolation or a quarantine hotel. People without any symptoms signed forms saying they are able to self-quarantine for the next 14 days.
Fifteen of the people who arrived asked to be put in quarantine in a hotel because they did not have a way to isolate themselves at home. They were transferred to the Prima Park Hotel in Jerusalem.
After that flight, the policy was applied unevenly, and in some cases not at all. People continued to arrive from abroad and went home to self-quarantine.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu examined the possibility of having people pay for their own quarantine in a hotel, but Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit rejected it.
While deliberations continued, United Airlines canceled a Saturday night flight from New York.