The coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday approved an outline to partially reopen the skies, allowing Israelis to enter and leave the country on authorized flights from Sunday.
Returnees may choose to quarantine at home instead of in a hotel.
Under the plan, up to 3,000 citizens a day will be able to enter the country without special permission from the governmental exemptions committee. The number and destinations of flights allowed to operate from Ben-Gurion International Airport will be determined by the Transportation Ministry in cooperation with the Health Ministry.
Those who return will need to undergo two coronavirus tests: one before boarding the flight and one upon arrival. These will include travelers who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the virus.
Such vaccinated or recovered Israeli travelers will be able to travel abroad on authorized flights, while those who are not fully vaccinated will be required to apply for permission.
In the initial phase, the only destinations will be New York, Paris, Frankfurt and Kiev, Israeli media reported. The reason for selecting these destinations was not given.
An extra 660 police officers will be assigned to enforce mandatory quarantine. The government will also offer technological means, such as electronic bracelets, to ensure that people isolate at home. Hotels will remain available for those who cannot quarantine at home.
The Health, Transportation and Tourism ministries are working on a framework within which to welcome vaccinated tourists to Israel. Meanwhile, foreigners will still have to apply for a special permit.
The plan to reopen the skies was reportedly approved in spite of opposition from Health Ministry officials.
“We see many mutations out there, not just from New York,” one of the approved destinations, the ministry’s chief of public health Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said during the meeting.
“We must make sure that [the quarantine of] people who enter will not be just under police enforcement, otherwise we will find ourselves in a catastrophic situation in a month and we will ask ourselves how we allowed people in carrying mutations,” she said. “In such a situation, the vaccination campaign may be proven useless. We must be careful.”
Earlier in the day, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said that the cabinet discussions were plagued with “election fever.”
“Everyone feels that these discussions are affected by election fever and impacted by it,” Levy said in an interview with Radio 103FM on Tuesday morning. “There is no question that the ministers come to advance their own interests and the interests of their ministries, and that politics also play a role.”
The decision to reopen the skies came a day after the government decided that the third phase of the exit strategy from the lockdown – the opening of restaurants and event halls – will begin on Sunday as planned.
The R reproduction rate stood at 0.97 on Tuesday, marking a decrease after several days on the rise.
Maintaining the R rate at 1 or below is one of the criteria that the Health Ministry has set as a condition for relaxing restrictions, together with the number of people fully vaccinated and the number of patients in serious conditions.
During the cabinet meeting on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that the latter criteria are becoming more central than the first one, in light of the success of the vaccination campaign in the country.
However, health ministry officials, including coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash, expressed concern over the cabinet’s decision to move forward with the plan to lift restrictions without firm evidence of a decreasing R rate.
Some 4,802 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday, with 5.4% of about 90,000 tests returning positive results, according to the Health Ministry.
Of all those infected, 705 were in serious condition on Tuesday night and 213 were on ventilators. The death toll rose overnight to 5,786.
At the same time, over 4.8 million Israelis have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, including 3.5 million who have received both shots.