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Omicron: Israel to ban entry to all foreigners amid new Covid variant

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announces new measure that would make Israel the first country to shut its borders completely over new Covid-19 variant
Vaccinated tourists wearing masks for COVID-19 protection arrive to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on 23 May (AFP/File photo)

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is moving to ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and to reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of a new and potentially more contagious Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa.

South African scientists identified the new B.1.1.529 variant - dubbed "Omicron" - on Thursday and said it had at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta and three for Beta variants. 

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Bennett's decision, which needs government approval, would last 14 days, the premier said in a statement on Saturday.

"We are now in a space of uncertainty," Bennett said of the announcement in a post to Twitter, vowing to maintain "an open Israel with a functioning economy and an open education system". 

"To do this, we will need to very closely supervise the state's borders and proceed with caution and with minimal risks," he said in the post, written in Hebrew. 

The premier, who took office in June, also noted that he had been in contact with the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna pharmaceutical companies, as well as other experts and Israel's Ministry of Health during the decision making process. 

Israel, the first country to shut its borders completely over the Omicron variant, has so far confirmed one case of the variant and seven other suspected cases. 

"Our working hypotheses are that the variant is already in nearly every country," Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told N12's "Meet the Press" on Saturday, "and that the vaccine is effective, although we don't yet know to what degree."

The Shin Bet domestic security agency's phone-tracking technology will be used to locate carriers of the new variant in order to curb its transmission to others, the premier's office said. 

A 'variant of concern'

The World Health Organisation declared the recently discovered Omicron strain to be a "variant of concern", spurring an series of differing travel bans from various countries. 

OmanQatar,  EgyptIranSaudi Arabia, the United Arab EmiratesBahrainMoroccoKuwait and Jordan are among the Middle Eastern countries that announced bans on some travellers from several African nations this weekend after reports of the new variant. 

Egypt announced on Friday that it had detected a case of the new variant. 

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Switzerland on Saturday widened quarantine requirements to stem the spread of the Omicron variant to travellers arriving from countries where cases have been detected, including Britain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi, its health ministry said. On Friday, it banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region. 

The European Union has proposed member states stop all flights to and from southern Africa following the variant's discovery, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.

The UK has also banned flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries, asking returning travellers to quarantine.

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