Omicron: Israel becomes first country to shut borders completely over fears of new variant

Passengers walk with their luggage upon their arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport (AFP via Getty Images)
Passengers walk with their luggage upon their arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport (AFP via Getty Images)

Israel has become the first country in the world to shut its borders completely over fears of the new omicron coronavirus variant.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that the ban on foreigners entering the country would last 14 days.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” his office said in a statement. “The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” it added.

Watch: Bordering on a crisis: Israel closes its doors to tourists in hopes of avoiding Omicron spread

Authorities said the travel ban will come into effect at midnight on Sunday.

They said the country was red listing travel to 50 African countries and banning the entry of all foreigners. It also said all Israelis arriving from abroad will have to undergo mandatory quarantine.

On Saturday, Israel had reported its first omicron case.

Ran Balicer, the head of the government’s advisory panel on Covid-19, was quoted by Israel’s Kan public radio as saying that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war surrounding the new variant”. He said it was “better to act early and strictly to prevent its spread”.

Mr Bennett also said that the Shin Bet counterterrorism agency’s phone-tracking technology would be used to monitor and contact-trace the carriers of the new variant.

The controversial surveillance has been in use on and off in the country since March 2020. Earlier this year the Israeli Supreme Court limited the scope of its use after civil rights groups questioned several privacy concerns that had emerged out of its usage.

Despite the travel ban, the country will go ahead with hosting the Miss Universe beauty pageant scheduled to be held next month.

“This is an event that will be broadcast in 174 countries, a very important event,” said Yoel Razvozov, the tourism minister. He added that “we will know how to manage this event. So, by using the waivers committee, we will have events like this, to which the country already committed itself and which we cannot cancel.”

Around 57 per cent of Israel’s 9.4 million population is fully vaccinated, according to the latest health ministry data. Concerns over the new omicron variant, which was first spotted in South Africa, however, remain as the effectiveness of current vaccines against it is unknown.

The World Health Organisation said omicron is a variant of concern.

It has since been discovered in a growing number of countries across the world, with others taking drastic steps such as restricting travel from several African countries.

Two cases have been detected in Australia, with health officials in its most populous state, New South Wales, saying two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening had tested positive for the omicron variant.

Additional reporting by agencies

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