State offers more Corona crisis aid

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The Norwegian government rolled out more proposals for billions in financial aid on Tuesday, to those struggling under the latest round of Corona virus containment rules. While the government claimed they were “powerful measures” meant to offset income loss, not all intended recipients or their representatives were impressed or grateful.

Finance Minster Jan Tore Sanner (left), Business & Trade Minister Iselin Nybø and Family Minister Kjell Ingolf Ropstad launched another package of government aid on Tuesday. PHOTO: Finansdepartementet

The new Corona aid package is valued at NOK 17.7 billion (nearly USD 2 billion) and directed at supporting the health care sector, providing compensation to local governments and businesses, assisting especially vulnerable people like the elderly and extending unemployment benefits to those who’ve lost their jobs.

Finance Minister Jan Tore Sanner of the Conservative Party said at the government’s press conference Tuesday that it’s difficult to determine exactly how the current wave of Corona infection that’s been sweeping over Norway will hurt the economy. With Norwegians urged to “just stay home” for at least another three weeks and public gathering places closed or restricted, it’s clear that revenue losses at restaurants, bars, cinemas, theaters, sports arenas and hotels, for example, will be severe.

NOK 5 billion is aimed at offsetting such businesses’ revenue losses from September 2020 through February 2021. Companies losing more than 30 percent of their revenues because of the anti-infection rules will be eligible for the state compensation, if the Parliament approves the government’s aid proposals. For the months of November and December, for example, businesses can qualify to have up to 70 percent of their permanent monthly costs covered, up to a limit of NOK 50 million. Companies can also be compensated for their costs tied to infection control, but businesses like restaurants that have felt compelled to close during the usually busy fall season worry whether they’ll be able to reopen. For many, revenues generated in the months of October, November and December keep them going the rest of the year. This November, revenues will be next to nothing.

Withdrawing more billions from the Oil Fund
Another NOK 7.3 billion will also be offered to local governments to compensate them for higher Corona-related costs and lost tax revenues. An extra billion kroner will also be offered to the health care sector to boost its preparedness and stocks of infection control equipment.

The government also plans to dip deeper into Norway’s sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund to finance another billion-kroner worth of sick pay and Corona-related absence from work for employees, freelancers and sole proprietors, and another NOK 700 million worth of social welfare assistance through March 2021.

Additional funding of around NOK 1 billion will be offered to the struggling airline industry, NOK 480 million is earmarked to target businesses hurt by restrictions on their use of foreign workers and NOK 550 million will support some public events and the hard-hit travel industry. Nearly NOK 200 million will go towards boosting elder care and providing more psychological and social support for those needing it.

Saving jobs and income
The main goal, Sanner said, will be to preserve jobs and help those who’ve lost income and are hurting now during the latest crackdowns. He and Trade Minister Iselin Nybø claimed they had a good and ongoing dialogue with business and industry, in an effort to target government assistance where it’s needed most.

“We can’t compensate all the losses (of the Corona pandemic),” Sanner said, “and not everything can be solved with money.” The government’s strategy, he said, is to provide aid when and where needed, especially when the new anti-infection measures are hitting many hard. Then there’s a need, he said, for “more acute” means of help.

Norway’s conservative government coalition has been criticized, especially by the Labour-led government in Oslo, for not relieving uncertainty by simply promising ongoing aid for as long as the pandemic lasts. Nybø said the government can’t do that and needs to “stay flexible,” responding to needs as they arise.

“It’s the pandemic itself that’s uncertain,” Nybø said, describing it as “lasting and unpredictable.” The government doesn’t want to spend more of the taxpayers’ money than needed, and warned that Norwegians must be prepared for more bankruptcies, which so far have been relatively few.

Critics call for even more aid
Reaction to the new government aid package was lukewarm, with employers’ organization Virke quickly criticizing a provision that leaves businesses and workers unable to apply for aid until January, to offset losses from September through December. Surveys indicate that one in five businesses reeling from revenue loss will ultimately file for bankruptcy.

Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, using the flexibility offered by the government to set local rules, effectively shut down most bars and restaurants in Oslo starting this week when he halted all serving of alcoholic drinks from midnight Monday. Now he expects the state to cover the resulting losses of affected businesses, but not all of them will or can be. The government crisis package will now be debated and likely modified in Parliament.

Others were criticizing some of the restrictions themselves, with cinema and theater operators claiming that only one of 100 cases of infection stemmed from attendance at cultural events. They’ve spaced seating to keep people at least a meter apart, and are thus demanding better reasons for the orders to close.

Most Norwegians, however, are respecting the next few weeks of tougher state restrictions  and the Oslo city government’s “social shutdown.” The main goal is to bring Covid-19 infection rates down after weeks of dramatic increases, avoid another total lockdown.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund