Netanyahu to convene emergency meeting on coronavirus

The meeting comes two days after the Foreign Ministry issued a warning Friday to Israelis not to travel to China.

People wearing face masks walk past luxury boutiques in the Sanlitun shopping district in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, January 25, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER)
People wearing face masks walk past luxury boutiques in the Sanlitun shopping district in Beijing, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, January 25, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/THOMAS PETER)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene a meeting Sunday of senior government, health and emergency service executives to ensure that the country is prepared to protect itself from and combat the spread of the coronavirus.
“We are not taking any unnecessary risks,” the prime minister said in a statement Saturday night. “The virus has already spread to five continents and more than 25 countries. We are aware that the virus cannot be completely prevented, so we are preparing to deal with the virus after its first entry into Israel.”
Representatives from the ministries of Health, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Interior and Transport will take part in the meeting, as well as the heads of the National Security Council, Israel Institute for Biological Research, Public Health Services, and the Population and Immigration Authority. Magen David Adom and the Home Front Command will also be represented.
The meeting comes the same day that an Israeli man who had been in China checked himself in to the Rambam Medical Center emergency room. According to the hospital, the man was transferred to an isolation room near the ER and examined for the virus. His blood tests were sent to the Central Laboratories at Sheba Medical Center for evaluation. He was released Saturday evening to his home and asked to stay there until his tests results are final. The hospital said that coronavirus has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry issued a warning to Israelis not to travel to China. On Thursday, El Al Airlines halted all flights to Beijing until March 25. That decision was made after El Al employees refused to fly to China, according to the Hebrew business publication Calcalist.
In addition, on Friday, Interior Minister Arye Deri announced in a statement that foreign nationals who had been in China over the past two weeks would be barred from entering Israel by land or sea until further notice. Late Saturday, he expanded the ban, closing air crossings to foreigners who have stayed in China in the past two weeks, as well.
As of Saturday, the death toll from the spreading coronavirus outbreak rose to 259. China’s National Health Commission said there were 2,102 new confirmed infections in China on Friday, bringing the total to 11,791. Around two dozen other countries have reported another 137 cases.
The Chinese data would suggest it is less deadly than the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people of the some 8,000 infected – about 10% – although such numbers can evolve rapidly.
“Following the World Health Organization declaration of the coronavirus epidemic as an international emergency, it is recommended that Israeli citizens refrain from flying to China,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in its statement.
The ministry also encouraged Israelis currently in China to leave, saying that although the health minister has banned all incoming flights to Israel from China, one can travel back to the Jewish state by way of a third country.
If Israelis do return to the country after being in China, then the ministry recommends a series of safety measures, including staying in isolation for around two weeks, the incubation period of the virus.
Israel’s travel warning is not yet valid for Hong Kong or Macao, the ministry said.
“The Foreign Ministry wishes to emphasize that the Israeli delegations in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, as well as its Hong Kong representative) should continue [to] operate despite the emergency,” the notice concluded.
The Israeli announcement came the same day that the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Israel disseminated its own release to Israeli officials, the media and the public requesting that Israelis try to stay calm. The announcement reminded readers that while the World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, it said that global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.
“Under current circumstances, solidarity is what the world needs,” the spokesperson for the embassy expressed. “All countries should... work together to combat the virus and avoid overreaction that may result in more negative spillover.”
The embassy noted that it has maintained close communication with the Israeli government and is working with the government to prevent the virus from spreading to and throughout Israel. The spokesperson said that the embassy, Chinese institutions and businesses are following health authority recommendations, such as postponing unnecessary trips to China and requiring those who do travel there to exercise “self-quarantine measures” upon their return.
“Numerous Israeli friends have expressed to the embassy their support of the Chinese people’s effort in combating the epidemic,” the spokesperson wrote.
The embassy specifically thanked the city of Netanya and Israel’s Chamber of Commerce in China, which have offered to donate medical masks and other equipment to the country.
“We want to express our sincere appreciation to them,” the spokesperson said. “We hope Israeli friends will continue to understand and support China’s efforts in epidemic prevention and control.”
Israel is not the only country that has taken steps such as halting flights or evacuating its citizens to protect nationals from the coronavirus. Russia said its aerospace defense corps – a part of the armed forces – would begin flying its citizens out on Saturday. Similarly, South Korea and Indonesia were evacuating their nationals.
Like Israel, Singapore, the United States and Australia announced measures to ban foreign nationals who have recently been in China from entering their territories. Qantas Airways, Air New Zealand and all three major US airlines said on Friday that they would also be canceling flights to mainland China. Britain said that it was withdrawing some staff from its embassy and consulates in China.