EFTA questions quarantine hotels

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Debate has been swirling around Norway’s new “quarantine hotels” that opened last month, right after the country’s Corona virus containment measures were tightened. Now the European Free Trade Association’s surveillance authority (ESA) is questioning whether mandatory quarantine at the hotels complies with its rules that Norway is also obliged to follow.

This hotel adjacent to Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen has been among those being used as a “quarantine hotel” for everyone arriving from abroad who don’t live in Norway, including several Norwegian citizens. PHOTO: Nordic Choice

The EU itself is no longer recommending quarantine or systematic Covid-19 testing for those arriving in one European country from another. News bureau NTB reported on Wednesday that EU health authorities view the risk of infection being imported as low, and accounting for only a small percentage of new infection cases.

Norwegian authorities and especially those in Oslo, however, have pointed to foreign arrivals as a major source behind the second wave of Corona infection in Norway that’s only now beginning to ease. They thus began ordering everyone arriving in Norway from abroad to spend 10 days in quarantine in a designated hotel, unless they lived in or owned a home in Norway. The new rule, which took effect November 6 and was implemented from November 9, also applies to returning Norwegian citizens if they live abroad.

The so-called “quarantine hotels” opened hastily, according to critics, and quickly met opposition. Not only have surprised airline passengers arriving at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen objected to spending their first 10 days at an airport hotel, so have legal experts.

Controversial accommodation
Law Professor Hans Petter Graver at the University of Oslo wrote in newspaper Aftenposten that no one can be forced to stay at a quarantine hotel, and are only “obliged” to stay there. Graver contends that unhappy guests can leave the hotels at the risk of being fined, but can also then appeal the fine in court. If the quarantine opponent can then document that staying at a quarantine hotel was “unreasonable,” the fine is likely to be dropped if the plaintiff spent quarantine time in his or her home, owned or not.

Aftenposten has reported, for example, on the case of one Norwegian woman who lives and works in Oslo, where she rents an apartment, but whose teenage children live in Copenhagen, where she owns a home. She objected so mightily to being sent to the airport’s quarantine hotel that she flew back to Copenhagen the next day.

In another case, a Norwegian woman living in Denmark needed to travel home to Norway in early November to visit her dying father. She told Aftenposten that she had to fight against the clock to avoid the quarantine hotel rule that took effect from midnight November 9. She managed to land in Oslo only hours before, but thinks the law is “brutal.” If her flight had been delayed, she told Aftenposten, “I would have been sitting alone at the quarantine hotel when Pappa died.”

Norway’s own public health institute FHI also reportedly objected to the rule that ushered in the quarantine hotels near border crossings with no rounds of hearings in advance. Graver suggests the rule was an “improvised measure,” and FHI documents show its officials commenting that the hotels should only be used when the arriving passenger has no other place to spend the quarantine period.

Questions from European authorities, too
Now the EU isn’t even recommending quarantine for arrivals from within Europe, while its affiliated ESA has also sent several questions to Norwegian officials about the quarantine hotels. Norway isn’t a member of the EU but it is a member of EFTA and thus needs to follow most EU directives.

“We have asked for more information about several of the rules (for the quarantine hotels),” Jarle Hetland of the ESA told Aftenposten on Thursday. He couldn’t say whether a formal case against Norway’s decision to use quarantine hotels would be opened, adding that “we’re looking for clarity in these rules with regards to arrival- and residence regulations. We look forward to have a dialogue with Norway about this.”

The Norwegian government has already indicated a need to extend the rules beyond their 30-day trial period, which ends on December 6. To do so, however, they had to put the proposed extension out to hearing and must then go through Parliament.

The Norwegian Bar Association is among initial respondents that have objected to use of quarantine hotels, calling them “an extremely invasive measure that actually involves internment of people arriving in Norway.” The professional lawyers’ group claims that in turn violates fundamental human rights including the right to move freely and the rights to private- and family life.”

The government, along with many local officials, has defended the rules as an important means of hindering the spread of Corona infection, not least after many foreign workers arriving from Poland tested positive for Covid-19. Health officials have documented that much of the infection in Norway’s second wave of Covid-19 arrived with people from abroad.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund