Israel will get rid of its COVID testing requirement at Ben-Gurion Airport on May 20, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz announced on Sunday.
All travelers, returning Israeli citizens and tourists alike, who arrive at the airport after May 20 will not have to test for coronavirus. In the meantime, Bennett and Horowitz announced that as of Thursday, incoming travelers will be allowed to take a rapid antigen test 24 hours before their flight as opposed to the PCR test currently required.
The decision was made in light of the declining rate of COVID infections in Israel, though the government has also agreed that the testing site be maintained in some capacity such that it can be reactivated if need be.
Prior to the policy change, all arriving travelers have been required to take a PCR test upon arrival and go into isolation for 24 hours or until they receive a negative test result. Israel remains one of the few countries in the world that demand travelers be tested upon landing. Most countries with testing requirements allow a PCR test up to 72 hours before a flight, usually only required for unvaccinated travelers.
While a blanket approach to testing is being scrapped, the Health Ministry is exploring a sample testing policy to monitor and prevent the entry of new variants, it said in a statement.
“The health system’s concern and preparations for a sixth wave of infections focus on a scenario in which a combined variant will emerge, one that is highly infectious and has the ability to become the dominant strain, similar to Omicron, but also more deadly, such as Delta,” the statement read.
In April, about 10 percent of new COVID infections were detected among arrivals from abroad. However, experts who have advocated for continuing airport testing note that it is less important to track how many arriving passengers test positive for the virus, but rather how many are infected with new variants.
Last month, a health official said that testing at entry points into Israel “are intended to identify the entry of new variants from abroad and this is certainly very important. Will sampling give the answer? We’ll have to examine this in the coming week.”
Health experts have offered a range of possible approaches to detect incoming variants, including testing a sample of people entering the country or officially reducing the list of destination countries that require COVID testing upon arrival in Israel.
Last month, the director of Ichilov Hospital, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s former COVID czar, tweeted that testing at Ben-Gurion is wasteful and unnecessarily troublesome to people. “In almost no countries [airports] do they ask for a vaccination certificate, Green Pass, PCR or antigen testing. That’s right, because the addition of this to coronavirus infections is very marginal,” he wrote.
“If everything is smart and right and justified throughout Europe and America, why in Israel are we staying with this,” he wrote, adding that in light of the cost of the tests, people “will be paying 60 million shekels to comply with an out-of-date policy.” His remarks, considering the country’s low infection rates and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis flying abroad, sparked lively public debate ahead of the government’s latest policy changes.