Norwegians have been pulling together in recent weeks to limit the spread of the Corona virus, with one new survey showing that 90 percent support the state government’s Corona containment measures. Local officials, however, have also been setting their own quarantine rules that disrupt business and industry, pit regions against one another and put them on a collision course with the government.
The problems started in the popular tourist areas of Lofoten and Vesterålen, when their local authorities started demanding that anyone arriving from “south of Dovre” (a reference to the Dovre mountains just southwest of Trondheim in south-central Norway) had to go into 14 days of quarantine.The initiative quickly spread to Tromsø, which also banned even Norway’s own now-shut-down Hurtigruten cruise ferries from docking in the popular Arctic city. Tromsø also grew skeptical towards residents from other kommuner (municipalities) commuting into town.
Then several other municipalities in the newly merged northern county of Troms og Finnmark all but put up barricades at their town limits. Newspaper Klassekampen reported as early as March 17 that not only Tromsø and then Alta were putting søringer (southerners) in quarantine along with their own residents arriving back home. Small, scenic places like Kvænangen, through which the main E6 highway runs between Tromsø and Alta, made it clear in all capital letters (published on its website in red for extra effect) that non-residents were no longer welcome.
Even before the government’s controversial ban on trips to Norwegians’ beloved hytter (holiday homes) took effect, Kvænangen ordered its own hyttefolk to “travel home, otherwise you’ll get a visit from Civil Defense.” Roadblocks were set up on the E6 highway, and only trucks, buses and vehicles were allowed transit, and only with all their windows rolled up.
‘Sharpened its claws’
“The otherwise so peaceful kommune has sharpened its claws,” wrote Klassekampen’s correspondent based in Troms og Finnmark, Ole Magnus Rapp. “We knew Kvænangen as hospitable and inclusive. Its borders to neighbouring Alta, Kautokeino, Loppa, Skjervøy and Nordreisa have never been visible, until now.”
And that quickly caused problems for neighbouring residents, whose nearest health center, school or stores were in Kvænangen. Some people lived in one municipality and worked in another. The strict local quarantine rules soon starting causing many awkward situations.
Similar problems soon cropped up farther to the south in Nordland County, Trøndelag and Møre og Romsdal, and suddenly the local imposition of quarantine rules became a national issue. Leaders of local business and industry, like the mining operation Rana Gruver, began crying foul when employees living in other municipalities couldn’t report for work unless they’d undergone two weeks of quarantine. Workers cross municipal borders all the time in Norway, both in urban and rural areas, and it didn’t take long for the local regulations to threaten serious disruptions at a time when Norway’s economy is already under threat and as many as 250,000 people are out of of work.
It didn’t take long for the leaders of both the national employers’ organization NHO and Norway’s largest trade union confederations to collectively slam the local regulations. They’re normally rivals, but they put up a rare united front in urging local authorities to drop their quarantine regulations that can end up throwing more people out of work, disrupting industrial production and adding to supply problems. Employees, they stress, are being prevented from doing their jobs.
Government pleas for cooperation
National health authorities claim there is no reason for the local regulations, and both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Justice Minister Monica Mæland have implored the local officials on national TV to drop their quarantine rules. Most have refused to do so, claiming their main priority is to keep the Corona virus out of their so-far virus-free communities.
Then the national media pounced. “No one should have to be put in quarantine because they’ve gone to a Vinmonopolet (state liquor store) in another town,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week. It blasted all the townships in the Helgeland region of Nordland, for example, that have imposed their own rules that have “major negative consequences” for local business.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) also criticized the local regulations that threaten an otherwise strong sense of national unity at present. DN specifically criticized the county governor of Møre og Romsdal from the Labour Party, Rigmor Brøste, for refusing to flat out order the county’s local municipalities to drop their disruptive quarantine rules.
A county governor (fylkesmann) in Norway functions as the state government’s and monarch’s representative, meaning Brøste was ignoring if not defying government policy. She responded that in allowing enforcement of local quarantine rules even in relatively large cities like Molde, Ålesund and Kristiansund, she was simply responding to local concerns, noting that limiting the spread of the virus is also the state’s “job number one.” Of Møre og Romsdal’s 26 kommuner, only three were following the state government’s advice this week.
Brøste won support from the Labour Party itself, whose health policy spokesperson said she could understand the reasons for the strict local quarantine rules in Northern Norway. The entire northern region only has intensive care facilities for 26 people at a time. Maintaining low levels of Corona infection, the party argued, can give local authorities more time to boost medical faciities.
Hans Petter Graver, a law professor at the University of Oslo and one of Norway’s most highly respected legal experts, has claimed that the local quarantine rules are illegal because they limit residents’ freedom of movement within the country. He pointed out that police can’t legally enforce such regulations. Other legal experts, however, have argued that local rule has a strong position in Norway and that local officials have the power to do what they think is best for their local communities.
Calls were going out this week for Mæland, as justice minister, to simply order local officials to follow the government’s guidelines. DN urged Mæland to do so this week: “The most sensible thing to do is follow the national strategy that’s based on national and international competence and advice.” DN reminded Mæland that Norway is fighting a “dual battle” against both the virus and its devastating effects on the economy.
With business leaders in Northern Norway now feeling the negative effects of shutdowns, support for the local rules may slack off and officials may realize they’re creating more problems for themselves. “We have to hinder development of many small kings around the country,” wrote commentator Kjell Werner in newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. “In a crisis like we have today, the national state must show itself from its best side,” even if that means forcing local authorities to follow national regulations. All the local regulations, Werner argued, have created “unnecessary tension between local and national authorities.”