Israel, fearing virus mutations, to close its only international airport

Medical personnel test a passenger for the coronavirus Sunday on his arrival in Israel

JERUSALEM —Israel will close its only major airport for at least a week, authorities said Sunday, effectively sealing itself off from international travel in a bid to vaccinate more of its population before new variants of the coronavirus take hold here.

The cabinet agreed Sunday to bar incoming and outgoing international passenger flights at Ben Gurion International Airport from midnight Monday until at least the end of January, unless a parliamentary committee votes to overturn the plan.

The few exceptions will include cargo flights, medical evacuations and “firefighting flights,” according to the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Departures will be banned except for certain extreme cases, including family funerals and legal proceedings, which will require individual approval by health authorities.

Even Jewish immigrants scheduled to arrive under the country’s Law of Return will be barred during the shutdown, an interruption in the flow of newcomers that reportedly was opposed by Israel’s immigration minister.

“No nation has done what we are about to do — we are hermetically sealing the country,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We do this to prevent the entry of the virus mutations and to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign.”

Israel has outpaced all other countries in inoculating about 27 percent of its population with at least the first shot of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. Officials expected to vaccinate an additional 1 million residents over the course of the next week.

The country’s health system is in a tense race with a rate of infections that threatens to overwhelm its hospital capacity. Israelis are mired in their third national lockdown; the number of critical cases, which had drifted downward, showed another increase over the weekend.

Officials have expressed confidence that the massive vaccine effort will begin to pay off as more second shots are delivered, but they worry that new variants of the virus are responsible for the stubborn hospitalization rate.

A variant of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom, which appears to be significantly more contagious, has been detected in some of Israel’s latest positive cases, according to media reports. Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash has told officials that he expects the variant to become dominant in Israel within weeks.

Closing the airport for the first time during the pandemic is an attempt to buy time for more Israelis to get their shots before that variant and at least one other, first identified in South Africa, gain a greater foothold.

Amid reports that travelers were failing to abide by incoming self-quarantine restrictions, health officials in recent days had pushed to shut down air transit for at least two weeks.

Ministers finally agreed to shutter the airport until the end of the month, when the current lockdown is scheduled to end. Both closures could be extended, officials warned. They implored Israelis to heed existing guidelines and to get their shots.

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