Still shaken by the post-holiday spike in Covid-19 infection in Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg is extending most of the “social shutdown” rules her government imposed right after New Year. There will be some easing of visitation rules at home, but Solberg still sees a pressing need for strict regulations to keep infection from spreading.
The alternative, Solberg told Parliament on Monday, is more illness, packed hospitals, more deaths and more damage to the Norwegian economy. Some argue that the restrictions themselves are causing the most damage, not least when Solberg confirmed that a national ban on alcohol being served in bars and restaurants will continue. Solberg counters that it’s necessary to retain control over infection, while many eating and drinking establishments have closed and now face bankruptcy.
“The infection situation is still serious,” Solberg said a press conference following her appearance in Parliament. “And we must be prepared that it can get worse.”
Her government is thus maintaining the ban on alcohol, with a new evaluaton due next week. Health Minister Bent Høie said it was necessary on a national basis to prevent people from simply traveling from one municipality to another that may be serving. Solberg maintained that bars remained “strongly overrepresented” as sources of infecti0n, because they attract crowds.
Some disagreement among advisers
There was disagreement among her closest expert advisers, with the public health institute FHI favouring an end to the national ban. Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, director of FHI, noted that there’s “such wide variation” in infection levels around the country that restaurants and bars in some areas could start pouring again, at least until 10pm as under previous regulations.
The head of the state health directorate, however, objected to an end to the national ban that would leave decisions on serving up to each local municipality. “We accept that,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the ban is an effective measure against the spread of infection. “The question was whether we should leave it up to the individual local governments.”
Five visitors now allowed
Solberg made it clear that her government still recommends “to the highest possible degree” that Norwegians continue to limit social contact. She suspended the latest and harshest measure against inviting anyone home, opening up now for as many as five guests from outside the household provided everyone can maintain at least a meter’s distance from one another, preferably two meters.
Visits at hytter (holiday homes) are also discouraged but not banned, as long as guests and hosts remain at least a meter or two apart. That can be difficult at small hytter. Private gatherings outside homes and holiday homes are limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors, and the government continues to discourage all travel that’s not strictly necessary.
She also eased school restrictions from the “red” to the “gold” level, with digital instruction still encouraged at the college and university levels. Children and youth under 20 can again take part in extra-curricular activities “as normal,” both indoors and outdoors, but any tournament play, cups or championships must still be postponed. She insisted that her government’s goal has always been to put a priority on children and youth, and make their lives more predictable. Top-level sports clubs, meanwhile, are being asked to postpone all league play for two more weeks.
Still recommending against travel
Cultural events remain postponed and restrictions on funeral gatherings remain in effect. Solberg told Norwegians that any Easter holiday travel should take place within Norway. It may be possible, she said, to travel to some areas of Europe this summer, “but I would recommend having good travel insurance to cover cancellations and alternative plans.”
Solberg, flanked by Høie and the state’s top health officials, also warned that her government was still prepared to impose curfews if infection suddenly spins out of control. The trend has turned positive recently, with declining infection levels, but that can change quickly. Her government continues to seek “the right balance,” she said, in its anti-infection measures.
“There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it will be a while before we can lower our guard,” Solberg said. “We must continue to take responsibility together and for one another. Everyone must be prepared to live with various degrees of infection and regulations until summer, perhaps even longer. We will let up just as soon as it’s defensible.”