Debate flies over border restrictions

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Norwegians suddenly appear mixed over whether their government should further relax border restrictions with other Nordic countries, especially Sweden. Thousands of Norwegians want to visit their holiday homes in Sweden or even go shopping, and state health officials think that should be allowed, but a new survey indicates a huge majority opposed to opening up for holiday trips to Sweden until later this summer.

The bridge here at Svinesund is the most heavily used border crossing between Norway and Sweden. Questions remain when it will fully re-open to Swedes and Norwegians alike without setting off 10 days of mandatory quarantine in Norway. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the survey, conducted by research firm Opinion on its own initiative, indicates that fully 73 percent of Norwegians questioned don’t want government officials to open the borders for pleasure trips to Sweden before the summer holidays set in.

“That’s a crystal-clear message from the Norwegian people,” Ola Gaute Aas Askheim, a partner in Opinion, told NRK on Friday. The survey questioned 1,231 Norwegians over the age of 15 in what was described as a representative nationwide sampling on June 2-3.

NRK reported that only 15 percent answered that Norway’s border crossings to Sweden should be opened, while 12 percent said they were unsure. Askheim linked the response to what he called “the quite massive criticism” over how the Corona crisis was handled in Sweden, where more than 4,500 people have died from Corona-related illness. That compares to 237 Corona-related deaths in Norway as of Thursday evening.

Sweden’s state epidemiologist in charge, Anders Tegnell, admitted earlier this week that Swedish officials should have done more to prevent Corona virus infection from spreading. Swedes have also been met with skepticism throughout Europe and are not among the 19 European countries welcome to visit Cyprus, for example, in June.

Health officials ready to open the borders
Both Norway’s public health institute FHI (Folkehelseinstitutt) and state health directorate (Helsedirektoratet), meanwhile, have recommended that Norwegian owners of property in Sweden and others should be able to freely travel over the border without having to undergo 10 days of quarantine upon return to Norway. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Friday that FHI informed government officials as early as May 8 that quarantine regulations could be dropped for all travelers within the Nordic countries, and replaced by “self-monitoring and testing if symptoms develop.” The health directorate followed up on May 12, with a letter made available to Aftenposten with much the same recommendation.

Norway’s health ministry, however, balked. Government officials objected on the grounds that opening borders among all the Nordic countries could also clear the way for travelers from other countries who want to come to Norway and avoid quarantine by traveling through Denmark, Sweden or Finland.

Only travelers from Denmark will be allowed into Norway without going through quarantine, from June 15, after which Norwegians will also be welcomed back to Denmark. NRK reported on Friday that record numbers of Norwegians have already booked holidays to Denmark, with ferry firms Fjord Line and Color Line both reporting a surge in business.

Pent-up travel demand
“The minute Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced that folks can travel again to Denmark, it was like a dam burst,” Rickard Ternblom of Fjord Line told NRK. Helge Otto Mathisen of Color Line also reported “record bookings,” well ahead of last year at this time. Color Line has also adjusted its transport offers to meet Danish requirements that visitors spend at least six nights and book accomodation in advance. Those with their own property in Denmark or traveling for family visits are exempted.

Questions remain over when Norwegians will once again be able to drive into Sweden, for example, to stay in their own holiday homes or make a day-trip for shopping. Border trade, which has boomed year after year, has collapsed since the Corona crisis hit in mid-March, even though infection levels in Strömstad, just south of the Norwegian border, are as low as in Norway. Around 12,000 Norwegians own property over the border and thousands more are keen to travel back to border towns like Strömstad and Charlottenburg to stock up on cheaper beer, wine and groceries.

“We don’t want to have unnecessary border restrictions in the Nordic area,” Health Minister Bent Høie has claimed. He has hinted that the Norwegian government may open up certain regions of Sweden to quarantine-free travel, and that would most likely include areas with the lowest infection rates.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund