March 10, 2020 / 2:08 PM / 20 days ago

UPDATE 1-Israel travel restrictions could ease when virus spreads locally

(Adds closure of West Bank-Jordan border crossing)

By Tova Cohen and Ari Rabinovitch

TEL AVIV, March 10 (Reuters) - Orders for all visitors arriving in Israel to self-isolate for two weeks could be eased if the coronavirus outbreak begins to spread locally en masse, one of the country’s epidemic management team said on Tuesday.

They may need to be replaced by other measures such as changing practices at schools and workplaces, said Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Clalit Health Services, Israel’s biggest healthcare provider.

Israel has so far reported 50 cases of the virus after testing thousands of people. There have been no fatalities.

Full containment is not possible in the long term, Balicer told Reuters by phone. He himself has been in home isolation since returning from a trip to Germany.

“We know this is bound to eventually fail and we are only trying to delay as much as possible this kind of massive dissemination,” he said.

At some point the travel restrictions will not be necessary and the moderate social distancing currently in place will not suffice, he said. Authorities will instead use “more disruptive efforts such as interfering in school and work”.

Balicer noted that Israel’s conditions were unique, with only one major airport, Ben Gurion International near Tel Aviv, and relatively limited movement across borders.

In Ramallah in the neighbouring occupied West Bank, Palestinian authorities ordered cafes and restaurants closed as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the territory’s 26 positive cases.

Israel shut the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank on Tuesday. The measure was taken as part of joint Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli efforts to stop the virus from spreading, a unit of the Israeli Defence Ministry said.

Until this week, all the cases in Israel were linked to foreign travel. But the case of an infected ambulance driver suggests community spread may be starting.

El Al Israel Airlines has already suspended routes, announced layoffs and warned of a drop in revenue. The airport has moved international travel into a single terminal and hotels have issued profit warnings.

On Tuesday, the arrivals board at Ben Gurion showed cancelled flights from countries with restrictions, and outgoing travellers wore facemasks as they filed through near-empty security checks.

In some parts of the concourse the robot floor cleaner was the only thing moving.

Some arriving home were caught unawares by the new measures.

“We landed in Israel and we heard from the news that we need to be two weeks in our homes, nobody told us here in the airport,” said Tom Yatzkan, 27, an Israeli student returning from Bulgaria. “It’s very sad because we are not going to work or study, but that’s life.” (Editing by Alison Williams)

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