Israel to Use Phones to Track Individuals Confirmed to Have Omicron Variant

Some countries throughout the world are adopting strict measures to contain COVID-19 outbreaks and the Omicron variant, including imposing travel restrictions, curfews and fines. But Israel's government is taking its containment efforts one step further in reviving the use of a controversial phone-monitoring technology that carries out contact tracing of residents infected with the latest strain, the Associated Press reported.

Israel had been using the technology on and off since March 2020, per Reuters, to curb the spread of the pandemic. But civil rights groups blasted the measure as a privacy violation and challenged it in court. Others have criticized the accuracy of the phone-monitoring system in indoor places, where large numbers of people can be flagged wrongly.

The country's Supreme Court in March issued a ruling limiting the technology's use, but the government recently authorized authorities to resume the practice in an apparent defiance of the high court's decision.

"We need to use this tool in extreme situations, and I am not convinced we are in that kind of situation," Justice Minister Gideon Saar told Israeli public broadcaster Kan this week.

The Israel Security Agency, also referred to as the Shin Bet, is able to monitor individuals' movements and contacts using their cell phone number and a national identification number, CNN reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said that the revived use of the technology is "restricted only to verified cases of the new strain," and there will be "no widespread and sweeping use for all verified cases as was done in previous waves of morbidity."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Israel COVID Measures
Israel’s government approved the use of a controversial phone-monitoring technology that carries out contact tracing of residents infected with the Omicron variant. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, gestures as he stands next to youths during his visit to a Maccabi healthcare maintenance organisation (HMO) outlet which offers vaccinations against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Israel Tuesday, June 29, 2021. Amir Cohen/Pool Photo via AP

New restrictions, or variations on the old ones, are cropping up around the world, especially in Europe, where leaders are at pains to explain what looks like a failed promise: that mass vaccinations would mean an end to widely loathed limitations.

In the Netherlands, where the curfew went into effect last week, mounted police patrol to break up demonstrations against the new lockdown, which is among the world's strictest. But most people appeared resigned to rush through errands and head home.

"The only thing we can do is to listen to the rules, follow them and hope it's not getting worse. For me it's no problem. I'm a nurse. I know how sick people get," said Wilma van Kampen.

In Greece, residents over 60 face fines of 100 euros ($113) a month if they fail to get vaccinated. The fines will be tacked onto tax bills in January.

About 17 percent of Greeks over 60 are unvaccinated despite various efforts to prod them to get their shots, and nine in 10 Greeks currently dying of COVID-19 are over 60.

"I don't care whether the measure will cost me some extra votes in the elections," Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Wednesday after lawmakers passed the measure. "I am convinced that we are doing the right thing, and I am convinced that this policy will save lives."

Employing a carrot instead of a stick, Slovakia's government is proposing to give people 60 and older a 500-euro ($568) bonus if they get vaccinated.

In South Africa, which alerted the World Health Organization to the Omicron variant, previous restrictions included curfews and a ban on alcohol sales. This time, President Cyril Ramaphosa is simply calling on more people to get vaccines "to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for."

In the U.S., there is little appetite in either political party for a return to lockdowns or strict contact tracing. Enforcing even simple measures like mask-wearing has become a political flashpoint. And Republicans are suing to block the Biden administration's new get-vaccinated-or-get-tested requirement for large employers.

President Joe Biden, whose political fate may well hinge on controlling the pandemic, has used a combination of pressure and urgent appeals to induce people to get their first shots or a booster. Also, the administration is working toward requiring that all air travelers to the U.S. be tested within a day before boarding their flight, instead of the current three days.

But Biden has said the U.S. will fight COVID-19 and the new variant "not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more."

"If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for the lockdowns," he added.

Chile has taken a harder line since the emergence of omicron: People over 18 must receive a booster dose every six months to keep their pass that allows access to restaurants, hotels and public gatherings.

And Chile never dropped its requirement to wear masks in public — probably the most common renewed restriction around the world.

Dr. Madhukar Pai, of McGill University's School of Population and Public Health, said that masks are an easy and pain-free way of keeping transmission down, but that cheap, at-home tests need to be much more widespread, in both rich and poor countries.

He said both approaches give people a sense of control over their own behavior that is lost with a lockdown and make it easier to accept the need to do things like cancel a party or stay inside.

Pai said requiring boosters universally, as is essentially the case in Israel, Chile and many countries in Europe, including France, will only prolong the pandemic by making it harder to get first doses to the developing world. That raises the odds of still more variants.

Lockdowns, he said, should be the very last choice.

"Lockdowns only come up when a system is failing," he said. "We do it when the hospital system is about to collapse. It's a last resort that indicates you have failed to do all the right things."

That's not how lockdowns are seen in communist China, which allows little dissent. At each new outbreak, entire cities are sealed, and sometimes millions of people undergo mass testing. In the strictest lockdowns, people are forbidden to leave their homes, and groceries are brought to their door.

So far, China hasn't seen the need for new restrictions in response to the omicron variant. The head of China's Center for Disease Control's Epidemiology unit, Wu Zunyou, said Omicron, for now, poses a manageable threat, and "no matter what variant, our public health measures are effective."

Austria Protest
The coronavirus's Omicron variant kept a jittery world off-kilter Wednesday Dec. 1, 2021, as reports of infections linked to the mutant strain cropped up in more parts of the globe, and one official said that the wait for more information on its dangers felt like “an eternity.” A man takes part in a demonstration against the country's coronavirus restrictions in Vienna, Austria, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Lisa Leutner/AP Photo