The Conservatives’ Bent Høie has ranked as Norway’s longest-serving health minister, but was told in Parliament Tuesday that public confidence in his efforts to battle the Corona virus is “fragile.” Complaints have been rising that health authorities lack a united front, meaning that measures aimed at halting the spread of the virus vary from region to region.
“We have the impression that there’s an absence of overall leadership,” Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, until recently one of Høie’s government colleagues, said from the podium in Parliament on Tuesday. “There are various means of addressing the same problem, and varying quality among municipalities’ preparedness.”
While the state is responsible for Norwegian hospitals, local health care, nursing homes and emergency clinics are run by municipal governments (kommuner). Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday on how the City of Stavanger, for example, has ordered cancellation of all events including concerts that attract more than 500 people, and Bærum has closed all school canteens, while other municipalities have not.
“It’s up to each local health authority to make its own decisions,” said Dr Svein Lie of the state health directorate at a press conference Monday. The state has refrained from issuing clear national guidelines regarding, for example, whether concerts can be held. “We give the responsibility to the arranger and secondarily to the municipality,” Lie said.
That’s led to different practice in different areas, based on evaluation of state health authorities’ recommendations. It’s also led to confusion among the public, and to Aftenposten editorializing that communication from central state authorities “has not been clear enough.” Several opposition politicians in Parliament clearly agree, grilling Høie after he addressed Parliament himself on the status of the Corona virus in Norway, its prospects and what’s being done to contain it.
He has promised to issue some new national guidelines after criticism from local health authorities who haven’t been sure what to do regarding restrictions on public assembly or or other events can be held, or how quarantines of suspected Corona carriers should be managed.
“I understand that this has been demanding for local authorities, and I take the criticism seriously,” Høie wrote in a message to news bureau NTB on Monday. “The health ministry has had regular meetings with the state health directorate and the public health institute (Folkehelseinstitutt), and they’re now working on clarification of national recommendations, both to the public and the municipalities.”
Both the Labour and Progress parties, at opposite ends of Norway’s political spectrum, think that’s coming a bit late and they were among those grilling Høie in Parliament. “People are uneasy, because it seems like it’s almost coincidental who’s being tested (for the virus), what kinds of quarantine periods are set and which public events are cancelled,” Jensen said. “There must be some clear advice from national authorities, so we have the same practice in all municipalities, all hospitals, all airports.”
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre unusually agreed with Jensen, and also demanded “clearer uniform leadership” from the state. “The impression that’s been left so far is that there’s much too much variation from region to region when it comes to capacity, experience and resources,” Støre, a former health minister himself, said in Parliament.
He also expressed concern over a looming shortage of protective clothing and equipment needed to for testing and to deal with the highly contagious Corona virus. “A pandemic is not only possible, but probable,” Støre said. “Why haven’t we built up our (medical) supplies earlier?”
More funding, stricter guidelines
Høie said in his address that the government will boost funding to laboratories so that their testing capacity won’t be weakened when, not if, they face budget overruns. He said Norway was also building up its supplies of critical medical equipment in the health care services.
“Many ask why we weren’t stricter earlier,” Høie said. “The answer is that all measures must be backed by professional advice. If we had acted earlier, people could respond that it was an overreaction and not comply, and the authorities risked losing their credibility.”
He said that health care workers all over the country have “broad support and a unified political Norway behind them,” also as the numbers of Norwegians needing to be hospitalized for Corona virus treatment increase. Health authorities are bracing for as many as 22,000 hospitalizations tied to the virus, 1,700 at the same time and 600 of the patients needing intensive care. There currently are around 200 confirmed cases of Corona in Norway, with only four hospitalizations as of Monday afternoon.
Along with more uniform guidelines, Høie said the state will be addressing many more aspects of the Corona virus concern. “We’re just at the beginning here,” Høie told Parliament. “It’s going to get tougher.”