Why does Israel keep on screwing up COVID travel rules? – analysis

A travel rules blunder involving the Sputnik vaccine just highlights how much the country does not appear interested in learning its lessons.

 TRAVELERS WALK through Ben-Gurion Airport earlier this year.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
TRAVELERS WALK through Ben-Gurion Airport earlier this year.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Just two weeks after Israel reopened its borders to foreign nationals – albeit with significant limitations – the specter of putting certain countries on travel bans and the umpteenth regulations blunder involving the Sputnik vaccine continue to demonstrate how the country is not working on its travel policies in a serious manner.

In the days ahead of November 1, when Israel was set to reopen its borders to vaccinated or recovered foreign nationals, many foreign citizens eager to visit the county – either for personal and family reasons, work/business purpose, or out of a deep desire to explore the nation as tourists – sighed with relief.

True, major limitations were set in place regarding who would be considered protected against the virus, but those lucky enough to meet the criteria thought that they could finally travel to Israel with no drama involved. Those who did not – like first-degree relatives of Israelis vaccinated or recovered over six months earlier and not boosted – imagined that they would just be able to continue obtaining special permission to enter Israel as long as they were willing to quarantine.

It turned out all of them were wrong.

First, the criteria themselves changed several times within a few days. An initial announcement by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on October 21 said that people would be considered vaccinated seven days after their second (or third) Pfizer shot, as with Israelis. A week later, on October 28 – just three days before borders were to reopen – the Health Ministry issued new rules increasing the days to 14.

 Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on September 6, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Travelers at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on September 6, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

In addition, the ministry said that while non-electronic vaccination certificates would be accepted, this was not going to be true for recovery certificates, contrary to what was previously implied. This left thousands of potential travelers from countries where such electronic documentation does not exist completely stuck – essentially recovered individuals from nations that do not belong to the 49-member European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate consortium, which includes Israel.

There were other problems highlighting a lack of clarity and glitches in the system.

For example, nowhere in both Bennett and the ministry’s statement specified that health insurance was required – but it was. Second, while inbound travelers in theory were given 48 hours prior to their flight to fill out the necessary passenger entry statement form – which included presenting the proper health documentation – the form had not been updated 48, 24 and even a few hours before November 1 to reflect the change in the system. A huge problem, considering that a traveler could receive approval to board the flight only by successfully filling out the form.

When asked about it on the afternoon of October 31, the Health Ministry’s staff simply responded that “the form was supposed to start working on November 1.” That was the same answer they gave two weeks later to those inquiring why the form would not accept the Sputnik vaccine as a valid vaccine on Sunday, when it was supposed to be accepted starting on Monday, according to the official government website featuring travel rules.

This time another surprise was awaiting those wishing to travel after being vaccinated with Sputnik: the whole thing was delayed until December 1, hours after it was supposed to be already accepted.

In the meantime, even those who in spite of all the zigzags still meet the criteria to be allowed into the country often see themselves denied permission after they fill out the form because of glitches in the system. Not to mention: on the day the system was supposed to be down for four hours for an update, it ended up being closed for double the time. Only at the seventh hour did the ministry send out a statement allowing people to board flights without the statement.

It didn’t stop. In the last week of October, the whole outline granting special permission to first-degree relatives of Israelis to enter the country – including for life-cycle events – ceased to work, leaving many who were previously able to visit their loved ones with no possibility to do so.

One cannot help but wonder: how can Israel continue to make such amateur-like mistakes, both in designing the rules and in implementing them?

Even more worrisome is why nobody seems to care about the emotional damage this causes so many of its citizens and supporters all over the world, or the economic harm to its tourism industry and many other sectors.

Month after month, rule after rule, the authorities do not appear interested in learning their lessons from previous problems.

While everyone understands the need to preserve public health and protect Israel from the virus, this does not justify the constant delays, glitches, lack of clarity, and frankly, of empathy.

Meanwhile, Israeli citizens can travel back and forth as they please if they are fully vaccinated or recovered. This is fine: freedom of movement is a fundamental right of a citizen, and should not be curtailed except to protect an equally important fundamental right. But maybe the need of a citizen who is about to give birth to have her foreign parents by her side should be as protected as the right to go on a beach vacation.

Meanwhile, health officials have started to hint that as morbidity goes up in many countries around the world, Israel might soon put some nations under a travel ban again. For many, these generic statements are enough to start feeling anxious again about possibly being prevented from visiting or receiving visits from family members, as happened over long periods during the pandemic.

In the coming days, mainly thanks to the efforts of the NGO Yad L’Olim – which has been trying to raise awareness on these issues among Israeli authorities – the Knesset is scheduled to have a hearing devoted to travel rules and all their concomitant problems, either before the Constitution Committee or the Interior Affairs Committee.

Time will tell if this meeting can mark the beginning of a change in the approach, or everything will just continue to be the same balagan (giant mess).