November 27, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Tour groups no longer need COVID-19 booster shots to enter Israel

6 min read

Foreign tourists who were double vaccinated more than six months ago will now be allowed to enter Israel in approved groups of five to 40 people – even if they have not received a booster shot, the Health and Tourism ministries announced Monday.

The new policy further expands the number of people eligible to visit the country, which has largely been blocked to foreign nationals for more than 18 months.

“We are not comfortable with the decision, but we understand there are individuals who want to come and visit Israel and cannot because they don’t have access to the boosters,” said Salmon, who is head of the Health Ministry’s Department of International Relations. “So, we are running kind of a barter, allowing people to come here but also putting some boundaries in place. People who are not fully vaccinated… are high risk.”

Since November 1, foreign nationals have been able to travel into the country if they meet Israel’s stringent criteria to be considered fully vaccinated or protected against the virus: inoculated twice within the previous six months, vaccinated with a booster, recovered with one shot or recovered within six months. Recovery certificates are also only accepted in an official electronic format.

However, under a new outline approved by the coronavirus cabinet in a telephone vote late Sunday night, members of tourists groups who were only jabbed twice will also be admitted with approval by the Tourism Ministry beginning on Tuesday.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, July 19, 2021.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, July 19, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Their shots will need to be among those recognized by the World Health Organization –Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, AstraZeneca, Covishield, Sinopharm, Sinovac and, most recently, India’s Covaxin. In addition, groups need to come from countries labeled green or yellow according to the system developed by the Health Ministry.

As of Monday, no country was green, while yellow countries included the US, France, Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Cyprus, Canada and Australia. The United Kingdom and Greece were orange.

IN ADDITION, these groups will be required to travel around the country as a capsule, and for the first seven days the tourists who are not considered protected will need to undergo a PCR test every 72 hours or an antigen test every 24 hours.

The group leader will report to the authorities the results of the tests and keep a record of the itinerary and contacts of its members in case the need for an epidemiological investigation arises.

Salmon said that tourists will not be allowed to leave their groups at any time, nor arrive in the country earlier or stay for a longer period than their group. They also will not be able to attend weddings, large public events or other venues where the risk of spreading infection would be increased.

He explained that the goal was to strike a balance between allowing tour guides to work and at the same time continuing to protect the local population. He said that tour guides would need to sign a commitment that they will ensure their travelers follow the rules.

“We still have a long way to go to bring back tourism, therefore we must act swiftly but surely, in order to increase the numbers of incoming tourists,” Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov said. “The Israeli economy needs tourism – as do, of course, the employees in the tourism industry.”

“In accordance with our ongoing policy, also when it comes to tourism, we will continue to live alongside coronavirus,” Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said.

The minister said that precautions would be taken to identify new COVID variants, which Salmon said could undoubtedly enter Israel as a result of its new tourism outlines. But he said that “whether they are going to be dangerous variants, whether we are going to see a game-changer variant that is resistant to our vaccines, only time will tell.”

Pointing out that variants are produced when you have a lot of multiplication of the virus, he said that “as many tourists as we have in Israel from around the world, the chances of having variants are higher.”

BUT THERE are those that Israel will continue to block from entering the country, including people who have recovered from the virus but live in a country that does not provide a digital PCR test or recovery certificate – such as the United States. Salmon said that he does not envision this policy changing anytime in the near future because, for example, such tests are so easy to forge.

“There are thousands of labs, and you could never test, control or check this data,” he stressed. “Even though you could also easily forge a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention card, there is still a batch number so there is a way to check.”

He said US travelers are asked to submit a full and detailed declaration of their vaccinations and upload copies of their CDC cards. Nonetheless, “will people cheat? It may happen – yes.”

Moreover, even the criteria to be considered vaccinated is preventing many from traveling to the country, since booster shots are not yet available in many countries, or are only offered to certain groups.

In the US, for example, boosters were only authorized for people over the age of 65 or those at high risk for catching COVID or developing a serious case of the virus.

ON MONDAY, The Washington Post reported that Pfizer is going to seek authorization for its booster dose for all individuals over the age of 18 as early as this week.

Salmon said that the ministry has heard some frustration from family members of Israelis who have not been able to enter the country because of the strict criteria – specifically because it precludes unvaccinated children.

That situation will become easier, at least for American families, since US regulatory bodies gave emergency use approval to Pfizer’s vaccine for children ages five to 11 and parents have started to give their kids the shot.

The Health Ministry will vote on the subject on Wednesday. It is expected that the ministry will approve the vaccines for Israeli children, too.

Salmon said that he cannot say with certainty that there are no long-term effects from the vaccine but “until now, more than 3.5 billion people have received at least a single shot… It seems extremely safe for all age groups.”

He snubbed anti-vaxxers, who he said would “create stories about messenger RNA – but they are really unbelievable.”

At the same time, he said vaccinating kids would not bring about coveted herd immunity, something that he holds is not applicable with COVID.

“What we would see is a de-facto herd immunity in many locations, and I do believe that would be part of a kind of slowdown in this pandemic. And at some point, this pandemic would disappear, as many pandemics do, due to various reasons – and really because most individuals are relatively well protected,” Salmon explained. “None of these vaccines give you 100% protection.”