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Travellers walk through the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Tel Aviv: Israel postponed the reopening of its borders to foreign tourism until August 1 as it tries to snuff out a surge of coronavirus infections it attributes largely to the incursion of the highly transmissible delta variant.

“We have decided to treat this as a new outbreak. We intend to cut it off here, take a pail of water and douse the flames while they are still small,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said after a tour of the national airport.

In addition to delaying the return of incoming tourism by a month, the government on Wednesday reinforced quarantine regulations, ordered more daily testing and introduced a 5,000-shekel ($1,535) fine on parents whose children don’t quarantine when required. Mask wearing, scrapped just days ago, was reimposed at airports, border crossings and medical facilities, and will be required in all closed public places if new daily infections don’t fall below 100 soon.

New cases among unvaccinated kids

New cases were down to the single digits in mid-June, but this week topped 100 for three days straight. Most of the new cases have been unvaccinated children and people returning from abroad. Some of the sick had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. While the delta Covid strain, first reported in India, is the most infectious to date, almost all cases in Israel have been asymptomatic or mild.

Bennett’s swift action pointed to a lesson learned from Israel’s devastating experience under then-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, when a low caseload following a first lockdown led to an abandonment of caution. New infections ballooned to more than 11,000 a day, sparking two more lockdowns and tamed only by the world’s most aggressive vaccination campaign.

More than half of Israel’s population has been inoculated. Israel approved vaccines for 12- to 15 year-olds early this month, but only several thousands have been immunised.

Still, hospitals that were previously overrun are now treating only a few dozen Covid patients.

Eran Segal, a Weizmann Institute scientist, told 103FM radio that while there was no immediate need for panic, Israel did need to monitor developments. On his Twitter page, Segal said that despite the uptick in infections, “there are still practically no cases of severe illness.”