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Israel lawmakers approve US travel ban to curb Omicron

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish travellers hurry to check in for a departing flights from Israel's Ben Gurion Airport./AFP
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Dec 22, 2021 - 06:43 AM

Jerusalem, Undefined  — Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday banned citizens and residents from US travel, adding it to a list of more than 50 countries declared off-limits in an effort to contain the Omicron coronavirus variant.

A parliamentary committee voted to approve a health ministry recommendation putting the United States on Israel’s “red list,” along with Italy, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey, committee spokeswoman Ronit Gal said in a statement.

The ban comes into effect Wednesday and will remain in force for at least a week, Gal added.

The United Kingdom, France and Spain were among countries already on the red list, as well as the United Arab Emirates and much of Africa.

Adding the US to the red list was a significant move for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, as hundreds of thousands of Israelis hold US citizenship.

The designation means that Israeli passport holders and residents cannot fly to the US without permission from an exemptions committee.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant accounted for 73.2 percent of new cases in the US over the week that ended Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The latest Israeli restrictions were approved as the health ministry reported that as of Tuesday there were 1,148 confirmed or “highly likely” Omicron cases in the country.

More than half the cases were among vaccinated people.

The Omicron cases were part of an upward trend of coronavirus infections. On Monday 1,306 cases were recorded, a level last seen in October.

Israel blocked nearly all foreign visitors last month after Omicron was detected in South Africa, just weeks after permitting tourists to enter for the first time since the pandemic began.

Health expert Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute said on public radio that preventing Israeli citizens and residents from travel was only a partial solution.

“Everyone knows the restrictions on the skies are to delay the arrival of Omicron, not to avert it,” he said.

“We must take advantage of these restrictions… so they help us with the vaccine efforts.”

Still, Segal said there was “room for optimism” as Omicron may not cause as severe an infection as previous coronavirus variants.

More than 4.1 million Israelis have received three doses of a coronavirus vaccine in the country of roughly 9.3 million people.

But inoculation rates remain low among teens and young children. Fewer than one percent of children aged five to 11 have received a single coronavirus jab.

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