TEL AVIV — Israel has detected four cases of the new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain, the Israeli health ministry said on Wednesday.

Three of the cases were returnees from England and are isolating at a hotel designated as a coronavirus quarantine facility, the health ministry said. The fourth case is under investigation, it added.

The new variant of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Britain and prompting high levels of concern among its European neighbours, some of which have cut transport links.

Israel closed its borders to foreigners in March, with exceptions including students and journalists. Under new restrictions adopted this week, it nixed those exceptions for non-citizen arrivals from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Denmark, citing risk of the new coronavirus strain.

From Wednesday evening until Jan. 1, all Israelis who return from abroad must isolate at hotel quarantine facilities, according to a directive posted to the health ministry’s website.

Israel launched a coronavirus vaccination drive on Saturday and has vaccinated 70,000 out of its 9 million population, health ministry data shows.

Having secured vaccines from drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, Israel expects to have enough doses by the end of the year for the 20% of its population most prone to COVID-19 complications.

Israel has reported 383,385 coronavirus cases and 3,136 deaths. It has imposed two national lockdowns and may soon order new sweeping restrictions amid an uptick in new cases.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Toby Chopra, Barbara Lewis and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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