UPDATED: Norway remained the last Scandinavian country to allow flights from Great Britain to land, but that ended Monday morning. Health Minister Bent Høie said the new ban will continue for the next two days and may be extended.
A new and highly contagious strain of the Corona virus discovered in Great Britain over the weekend had already prompted Denmark, Sweden and Finland to close their borders to British flights. That left Russia as Norway’s only neighbouring country to still allow flights from London, for example, to land.
Government officials including Høie had cited Norway’s strict quarantine policies as a reason for not banning flights from Great Britain when other countries did. Høie had warned earlier Monday morning, however, that the government’s openness was “under evaluation” and could end quickly.
It did. After receiving a new evaluation of the virus mutation’s threat from health authorities, they were ready by mid-morning Monday to not only ban flights but also issue several other strict new measures. With flights already scaled back dramatically during the Corona crisis, the next flight from London wasn’t due to arrive at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen (OSL) until 3:50pm on Monday, with another due at 6:50pm. Both, along with flights from Aberdeen to Bergen and Stavanger, will be cancelled.
Health authorities hesitated before cracking down
Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland had also closed their borders by Monday morning, part of efforts to keep the new Corona strain from infecting their own populations. Norway remained open because health authorities pointed on Sunday to Norway’s strict practice of sending most everyone arriving from abroad straight into hotel quarantine for 10 days.
The health authorities, widely considered to have handled the Corona crisis well so far, also stressed that all British passengers on their way to Norway or already in the country were receiving text messages on their mobile phones warning them of quarantine procedures. They also claimed that people who have arrived from the UK during the past few weeks were also being contacted and urged to test themselves.
Now everyone arriving from Great Britain faces obligatory Covid-19 testing within a day after arrival when flights resume. Another test will be demanded at the earliest seven days after arrival. Those who already have arrived in Norway from Great Britain during the past two weeks (2,771, according to newspaper Aftenposten) are also ordered to be tested “as soon as possible.” All tests will be analyzed, Høie said, by the public health institute to reveal any new virus mutation.
Travelers from Great Britain also face obligatory registration upon arrival, and an order to report their presence to the municipality where they’ll be staying. Those arriving from Britain won’t be eligible for any quarantine exemptions either. Høie warned “punitive sanctions” for anyone not following the new rules that also are to be sent via phone messages to all affected. The rules apply at least until January 10.
‘A lot of uncertainty’ regarding the new mutation
Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate told NRK before the ban on British flights that there was still “a lot of uncertainty” around the new virus mutation, which he also said had been expected. He doesn’t think it will have any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines about to roll out.
“There are no indications that the new variation of the virus makes people more or less seriously ill,” Line Vold, divisional director at the public health institute FHI, told NTB. She said FHI (Folkehelseinstituttet) was following the situation closely and intensifying virus surveillance efforts.
The government, which relies on the health experts for advice, had been under pressure to close Norway’s borders to everyone from Great Britain. The head of Oslo’s city government called for a ban on flights Sunday night. “This weekend I’ve been worried about the news of the mutation of the corona virus,” Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party wrote on social media. He noted that infection imported from abroad has “dominated” the situation in Norway now, not least in the capital.
“Fortunately the virus can’t swim over the North Sea,” Johansen wrote, adding, however, that “it comes with people who are traveling.” Both he and the conservative Progress Party called for mandatory testing and Johansen urged the government to evaluate closing the borders. The Center Party was making similar demands Monday morning.
Høie responded initially by repeating that such an evaluation was underway. Even though Norway has strict quarantine measures in place, it remains more open than Denmark, for example, which is all but shutting down between December 25 and January 3. Several other countries and now London and Southeast England are already in lockdown after Britain’s health minister described the new virus as “out of control.”