NATO’s large annual winter exercise in Norway called “Joint Viking” was halted on Tuesday, because of what Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen called “a demanding infection situation” in the country. Many thought it never should have begun, since it involved the arrival of 3,000 soldiers from abroad in the midst of a pandemic.
Bakke-Jensen, who earlier had insisted that Joint Viking should proceed despite confirmed cases of the Corona virus among arriving soldiers, has clearly changed his mind. A recent outbreak of the highly contagious British strain of the virus in Norway, which quickly shut down most of the Oslo metropolitan area, also contributed to Bakke-Jensen’s and the Norwegian Defense Department’s decision.
“We must be better safe than sorry in trying to avoid a spread of the virus mutation,” Bakke-Jensen said at a press conference in Norway’s northern city of Tromsø. “After an overall evaluation of the situation we have decided to cancel the allied activities in Troms.”
The 3,000 NATO soldiers from Great Britain, the US and the Netherlands were supposed to train in Northern Norway with 7,000 Norwegian soldiers over the next several weeks. Now they’ll be sent home “in cooperation with our allies and the Defense Department (Forsvaret) and in a manner that will address infection issues.”
‘An overall (re-)evaluation’
All soldiers who’ve arrived in Norway since early January have been tested and placed in quarantine. Several positive tests results came back in the first week and now military officials have confirmed that a total of 63 NATO soldiers from abroad tested positive for Covid-19. They’ve been placed in isolation at Norwegian military bases at Setermoen, Bardufoss and Skjold in Indre Troms.
Bakke-Jensen told reporters on Tuesday that the confirmed cases of infection were not the only reason for the cancellation. “This is the result of the overall evaluation,” Bakke-Jensen said, adding that Corona containment measures appear to have been “adequate.” He also stressed that the infection situation among defense personnel involved in Joint Viking was “under control.”
Asked whether it was wise to have gone ahead with the annual winter military exercises in the midst of a pandemic, Bakke-Jensen told state broadcaster NRK that “I think it’s wise to show that we can plan and make adjustments underway. It’s important for Norway’s defense forces and the allies to train also on these aspects of an exercise.”
Local and state civilian officials in Norway’s northern county of Troms og Finnmark told NRK it was now wise to cancel the entire Joint Viking exercise given the infection situation in the country now.
New military measure elsewhere also
Norwegian defense officials have also been imposing new anti-infection measures on their own personnel in connection with the infection concerns in the southern part of the country. All commuting to and from the 25 municipalities including Oslo that are now affected by the new outbreak has been halted. Norwegian military personnel arriving home from assignments in Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal or Brazil since January 15 must also undergo immediate rapid testing in addition to going into quarantine. Groups of military personnel working together have been reduced from 40 people to a maximum of five, and all foreign military personnel arriving in Norway must show proof of negative Corona tests that are no more than 24 hours old.
Bakke-Jensen thanked his NATO allies for their “flexibility and understanding in this demanding situation. Thanks also to local authorities, health care personnel and the military. Major efforts have been made to handle this situation in the best possible manner.”