Health Minister Bent Høie has played a heroic role during Norway’s battle against the Corona virus, but now he and the government are accused of caving into lobbyists to allow more foreign workers into Norway in June. That defied the recommendations of state health professionals, who warned that the risk of imported infection was high.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that both the national employers’ organization NHO and the trade association representing industrial firms (Norsk Industri) had lobbied Høie and other government officials hard last June. Tax subsidies granted to the oil industry last spring, to help them get through the Corona crisis, had prompted a spurt of activity in the offshore sector and some shipyards needed workers. Many of the workers came from Poland, Lithuania, Great Britain and other countries, but faced entry restrictions and quarantine demands that NHO and Norsk Industri wanted the government to ease.
Aftenposten could document that top state health officials had warned Høie that the risk of foreign workers bringing the Corona virus with them was “especially high.” The workers were urgently needed, however, so the health ministry allowed Norsk Industri to formulate exemptions to entry restrictions for the workers coming from abroad, to protect jobs and the fortunes of major employers in outlying areas along the coast.
When told by the health directorate that the resulting “guidelines” violated state regulations at the time, the regulations themselves were eased. On Friday, opposition parties in Parliament were calling for a disciplinary hearing, claiming that the government seemed to be in the pocket of the industrial lobby and had granted special privileges to industrial interests that were not granted to others.
‘Hotline to the government’
“This case is so serious that it demands a response from the government,” Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre told state broadcaster NRK on Friday. Other parties in opposition including the Center Party, the Socialist Left (SV), the Greens and the Reds are also indignant. “NHO has a hotline to the Conservative government that others can only dream of,” Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes told Aftenposten.
The problem is that more than 2,000 of the Polish, Lithuanian, British and other “guest” workers in Norway last summer tested positive to the Corona virus. They had avoided some of the mandatory testing and strict quarantine regulations that applied to others arriving from abroad. SV leader Audun Lysbakken told Aftenposten that “(Prime Minister) Erna Solberg isn’t afraid of being strict towards most of us in the fight against the pandemic, but she’s much less strict when demands come in from business interests.”
Most of the opposition politicians had gone along with, and even encouraged, opening Norway’s borders last summer, “but the question is whether the government had enough control,” Støre said, while MP Kjersti Toppe of the Center Party said it was “just incredible that Norsk Industri wrote the guidelines and that health officials’ warnings weren’t heard.”
Opposition shares some blame
Others, including political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in Aftenposten, note that Labour, Center and SV had pushed through the tax subsidies that suddenly created jobs in the offshore sector. They thus share responsibility for creating the demand for workers in June, suggests Alstadheim. Infection levels at the time had also fallen dramatically, Norwegians were allowed to travel within the Nordic countries and cruising was allowed to resume along the coast, although that resulted in literally scandalous amounts of Corona infection. Everyone also agreed that economic stimulus packages were needed and that restrictions should be relaxed in order to offset the harm Corona had already done to the economy.
Health Minister Høie also defended the exceptions allowed for foreign workers. They “did not lead to the second wave of infection (that has swept over Norway this fall),” Høie told NRK. “Completely other factors are behind that, including imported infection from people who aren’t covered by the the workers’ exemptions.”
Høie said he “of course” will answer any and all questions from Parliament about the quarantine exemptions allowed early last summer. Norway has since tightened its border control, ordered people arriving from abroad to check into special “quarantine hotels” and established more enforcement of quarantine.
Imported infection risk remains
The infection risks presented by foreign workers, however, are a major issue, not least as the winter fishing season begins. Many people come to Norway from all over Europe to work in fish processing centers, but they’ll face testing and quarantine regulations, too. They may bring Covid-19 with them from abroad, and must follow all Corona containment measures after arriving.
That prompted chief medical officers of eight municipalities in Northern Norway to call on Friday for new regulations that would allow the foreign workers to be covered by sick pay if they fall ill. Otherwise, fear health officials in Bodø, Lofoten, Vesterålen and other fishing centers along the northern coast, they’ll turn up for work and possibly infect others around them.
“We believe it’s critical that all workers are secured against loss of income because of illness or quarantine tied to Covid-19,” they wrote in a joint appeal published in Aftenposten on Friday.