Israel has banned all foreigners from entering the country and tasked intelligence services with locating and tracking all recent arrivals from the hotspots of the newly-emerged Omicron coronavirus variant.
The new rules are set to go into effect on Sunday night, making Israel the first country to completely seal its borders to foreign nationals for at least 14 days, following an emergency meeting of the Corona Cabinet. Only those specifically approved by a so-called Exceptions Committee will be allowed entry.
"The Government of Israel is working quickly and vigorously thanks to the conclusions that were formulated following the 'Omega' national drill which gamed various situations regarding the appearance of new variants," Prime Minister Naftali Bennett noted, referring to a national drill conducted just two weeks ago to assess Israel's preparedness for an outbreak of a potential unknown new strain of Covid-19.
All Israeli citizens returning from abroad - even those fully-vaccinated with two doses and a booster - will be forced to quarantine for at least three days, while those coming from "red" states will have to stay in designated military-run hotels until they test negative for the virus twice.
Those who had visited an African state over the past week were urged to undergo a test and isolated voluntarily, while internal security agency Shin Bet was tasked with monitoring the compliance using its cell phone tracking capabilities.
The controversial contact-tracing program was first used during the outbreak of the original Covid-19 virus back in 2020, but has since been ruled "no longer justifiable" by the High Court of Justice.
The harsh measures come after Israel detected a single confirmed and seven suspected cases of the new variant B.1.1.529, first registered earlier this month in Botswana. During an emergency meeting on Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially designated the new strain a "variant of concern," calling it Omicron.
Growing fears of the Omicron variant promptly triggered global travel bans, with flights from South Africa and several of its neighboring countries being barred by a growing number of states. While little is known about the variant thus far, experts worldwide have already raised the alarm over its multiple mutations and potential for infection. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control designated the strain as presenting a "high to very high" risk, adding that there was "considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of the Omicron variant."