Norway prepares to get back to normal

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There’s still no word on when foreign travel restrictions will be lifted, but most of Norway will be back in business from June 15. Even before Prime Minister Erna Solberg detailed her government’s new Corona control strategy, though, she faced criticism that politics took precedence over professional advice, and that there was too much secrecy around her government’s decisions.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg thanked Norwegians for cooperating with the government’s strict Corona containment measures that they’re now easing. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

There was also jubilation, however, when Solberg announced that schools can start reopening on Monday, that amusement parks and other large outdoor attractions can open from June 1 and that as many as 200 people can gather in places like churches, concert halls and cinemas from June 15.

The plan, Solberg said, is “to open Norway up again before the summer.” Moving from “a strategy of fighting off the virus” towards a strategy of controlling it will continue to demand lots of hand-washing and staying a meter apart from one another. Shaking hands and hugging remain unacceptable, “but we can together keep infection down, get folks back to work and take our everyday lives back.” She noted that as many as 20 people can now gather privately, up from five at present, clearing the way for traditional 17th of May breakfasts in Norwegian homes on Constitution Day next weekend.

Schools opening, football kicks off
All elementary- and intermediate schools can welcome remaining grades five to 10 back from Monday May 11, but details regarding how schools comply with anti-infection rules are up to invidual school districts. High schools and adult education can also resume from Monday, while colleges and universities will be more restricted because they have much larger studentbodies and require many to take public transportation. Henrik Asheim, the government minister in charge of higher education, said he expected around 25- to 30 percent of university students will be able to return to campus from next week, while others will need to continue studying and even taking exams from remote locations.

Prime Minister Solberg was flanked by her education minister, Guri Melby (far right) and by ministers Kjell Ingolf Ropstad (far left) and Bent Høie. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Football training can begin right away, with league play due to commence from June 16. Branches involving contact sport, like football and handball, will receive new guidelines, but training halls will reopen if not locker rooms, where the risk of infection spreading remains too high.

Some operators of training centers were disappointed that they won’t be able to reopen until June 15, and complaints were expected.

So were complaints about the lack of updates regarding foreign travel restrictions. “We just don’t know yet,” Solberg said at a government press conference Thursday evening. “This isn’t something Norway can decide on alone, it’s something we have to do together with other countries. We’re working on it, but it’s too early to set a date.”

That means anyone entering Norway from abroad, or even just over the border from Sweden, must still undergo 14 days of quarantine. That basically rules out entry for tourists and makes it difficult for Norwegians to travel outside the country and return.

‘Unknown’ commission made the decisions
Most of the decisions announced Thursday evening were reportedly already settled among Solberg’s closest ministers on Tuesday. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported how all “important decisions in the authorities’ battle against the Corona virus have been handed in the unknown and newly established commission called RCU (Regjeringens Covid-19 utvalg). It’s made up of Solberg, Justice Minister Monica Mæland, Health Minister Bent Høie and Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner, all from the Conservative Party, plus Children’s and Family Minister Kjell Ingolf Ropstad of the Christian Democrats and Trade Minister Iselin Nybø of the Liberal Party. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has reportedly taken part in meetings, while other ministers are included when their area of responsibility is discussed.

Leaders from the state health directorate and public health institute also offer updates on the Corona situation, but it remains unclear how the government receives and handles professional advice. Solberg has defended the commission that has never been publicly presented or referred to in public documents.

“The government’s Covid-19 commission has contributed towards the government being able to quickly handle a large number of issues with short deadlines,” Solberg told DN via her state secretary and adviser Rune Alstadsæter. “That’s been absolutely necessary.”

‘Ugly habit’
Others complain that it has shrouded decision-making in secrecy, without revealing the sources of advice or information used to back up decisions. “The professional advice lying behind the government’s plan (to reopen Norway) hasn’t been revealed,” newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Thursday morning, before Solberg’s press conference.

“That’s becoming an ugly habit,” Aftenposten wrote, noting how health officials never advised closing schools in the first place and then advised reopening them all at once, not staggered as the government chose.

“The government doesn’t necessarily follow professional advice, but has let political considerations weigh most heavily,” Aftenposten wrote. “There can be good reasons for that, but when measures affect constitutional rights (like going to school), openness should be the rule.”

Solberg told state broadcaster NRK Thursday night that her government had “received various advice from various areas of experts” regarding her plan to gradually reopen Norway. “It’s the sum of what we’ve done that’s important,” she said, and she claimed her government has succeeded so far in fighting back Corona despite the enormous costs involved.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund