Jerusalem—Israel closed its borders to all foreigners late Sunday in a bid to stem the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, authorities said.
“The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement, adding that the measure would take effect on Sunday evening.
Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine themselves for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not.
In Sydney, health officials said Sunday they had detected the Covid Omicron strain in Australia for the first time in two passengers who were tested after flying into Sydney from southern Africa.
The eastern state of New South Wales’ health authority said it had conducted urgent genomic testing and confirmed the new strain was present in the two people who landed in Sydney on Saturday.
Both passengers came from southern Africa and arrived in Australia on a Qatar Airways flight via Doha, NSW Health said in a statement.
They tested positive for Covid shortly after arriving, leading to an urgent analysis for possible infection by the heavily mutated Omicron strain.
“The two positive cases, who were asymptomatic, are in isolation in the special health accommodation. Both people are fully vaccinated,” NSW Health said.
It was only four weeks ago that Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid.
The measure was decided by a cabinet committee tasked with overseeing Israel’s Covid response and must be approved by the whole cabinet on Sunday morning.
The government’s latest announcement came just hours before the start at sundown of the eight-day-long Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
It already imposed a series of emergency measures late Friday to protect its heavily vaccinated population after identifying a case of the new Covid-19 variant.
The health ministry said the new strain that was first detected by South Africa — known as B.1.1.529 — was discovered in a person who had arrived from Malawi.
Two more suspected cases have been detected in people returning from abroad, it said, adding that all three, who had been vaccinated, were placed in quarantine. The government later announced another suspected case.
Scientists in South Africa said on Thursday that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta or three for Beta.
The strain was of “serious concern” and had been blamed for a surge in infections, the authorities in South Africa said.
It has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, as well as in Belgium.
The new variant “is concerning and has the potential to be very dangerous. We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said late Friday.
He said Israel would order 10 million PCR test kits.
Israel was one of the first countries to launch vaccines against the coronavirus last year, thanks to a deal with Pfizer that gave it access to millions of doses in exchange for data on the vaccine’s efficacy.
Its initial vaccine rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab was among the world’s fastest, and more than 5.7 million of the country’s nine million people are now fully vaccinated.
Another 12 passengers from southern Africa on the same flight to Sydney did not test positive for Covid but had been placed in quarantine, it said.
About 260 passengers and crew on the plane have also been told to isolate, the health authority said.
The plane with the infected passengers landed on the same day that Australia announced it was banning flights from nine southern African countries including South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organization has listed Omicron as a variant of concern and said it could take several weeks to know if there are significant changes in transmissibility, severity, or implications for Covid vaccines, tests, and treatments.
The arrival of the new variant comes just a month after Australia lifted a ban on citizens travelling overseas without permission, with the country’s border also set to open to skilled workers and international students by year’s end.
After more than 18 months of closed borders, fully vaccinated Australian citizens no longer have to seek an exemption to leave the country.
On March 20 last year Australia introduced some of the world’s toughest border restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For almost 600 days, countless international flights were grounded, and overseas travel slowed to a trickle.
Quarantine arrangements for returning vaccinated residents depend on where they arrive in Australia.
While Sydney has scrapped quarantine for returning travellers, other Australian states with lower vaccination rates still have mandatory and costly 14-day hotel quarantine requirements.
It is unclear whether the arrival of the new variant will lead to a return to tighter rules.
Speaking a few hours before the confirmation that the Omicron strain had arrived in Australia, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet seemed reluctant to commit to any new restrictions.
“We need to learn to live alongside the virus and also live alongside the various strains of the virus that will come our way,” Perrottet said.
“The best thing that we can do is to get vaccinated and get booster shots,” he added. “There are limits to what the state and federal government can do.”