JERUSALEM: Israel's health ministry Sunday recommended banning Israelis from travelling to the United States, and added several European countries to its Covid "red list", aimed at containing the Omicron variant's spread.
Barring US travel for Israeli citizens and residents would mark a significant step for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government, given the hundreds of thousands of dual nationals and close ties between the countries.
Speaking before Sunday's cabinet meeting, Bennett reiterated that he would continue to restrict travel in order to avoid further lockdowns.
"We bought precious time for the State of Israel," by curbing travel immediately after the new variant was detected last month in South Africa, the premier said.
"European countries are either in lockdown or are heading that way," he said, stressing that for Israel "time is running out".
Lawmakers on Sunday approved an earlier health ministry recommendation to bar Israeli citizens and residents from travelling to France, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Finland, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.
Britain and Denmark were already on the red list, as was most of Africa.
In addition to the US, the health ministry recommended that Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey be red-listed, guidance that is awaiting government approval.
Israeli citizens and residents who are already abroad when a country is declared red must quarantine for a week after returning home.
Foreigners coming from red list countries are barred unless they get special permission.
Ran Balicer, chairman of Israel's national expert panel on Covid-19, told AFP the travel rules were allowing for most life to continue as usual inside Israel.
"The more strict you are in preventing importation and delaying local transmission, the more lax you can be in disturbing the economy and everyday life," he said.
He said that in recent weeks, Israeli health authorities had tested each positive Covid case for presence of the Omicron variant, and conducted contact tracing to stop chains of transmission. As of Friday, 441 cases of Omicron had been detected, he said.
Balicer estimated that Israel would ease its restrictions once local transmission of Omicron began to rise, reducing the relative proportion of cases coming in from overseas.
He said it was not yet clear if the strain posed a risk of severe illness and death.
More than 4.1 million of Israel's estimated 9.3 million people have received three shots of a coronavirus vaccine, with the country currently giving jabs to children aged 5-11.