Norway closing to most non-residents

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The Norwegian government closed the country’s borders from midnight Thursday to nearly everyone who doesn’t live in the country. The goal is to ward off imported Corona virus infection, especially the new British strain that’s out of control over much of Europe.

The military and police have been cooperating on border patrol duties like here at a crossing to Finland in Northern Norway. Finland already closed its borders to Norway earlier this week. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Joakim Salmelid

“In practice this means that the borders will be closed to all who don’t live in Norway,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press conference Wednesday evening. The closure will be in force for at least the next two weeks, at which point her government will re-evaluate whether they’ll need to renew what she called “the strictest entry requirements since the Corona crisis began” last March.

The border closure comes after weeks and even months of criticism from opposition parties in Parliament that Norway’s border control was too weak and too much imported infection was getting into the country. Neither Solberg nor her health minister, Bent Høie, would admit to giving in to political pressure, though. They linked the closure instead to recent outbreaks of the new British strain of the virus that has shut down most of the greater Oslo metropolitan area since last weekend.

“We have already had among the strictest Corona containment measures in the world but we still need to lower the infection risk,” Solberg said. She insisted that the measures are working, resulting in the lowest Covid-19 infection numbers in several weeks, but imported infection has clearly emerged as the biggest threat. She did concede to state broadcaster NRK after the press conference that “we have had imported infection that we shouldn’t have had.”

Norway’s defense ministry cancelled this year’s large NATO winter exercises in Northern Norway because of infection concerns and after dozens of arriving NATO soldiers tested positive for the Corona virus. On Wednesday came news that a large construction project in downtown Oslo had to be shut down because of an outbreak of Covid-19 among workers. Fully 34 workers on the building site had been confirmed infected and 146 were ordered into quarantine. Some live in Nordre Follo, where the new British strain of the virus broke out last week, while others had recently returned to Oslo from Poland. It hadn’t yet been determined whether the British strain is involved.

The border closures will especially affect foreign workers in Norway, so-called “labour migrants” who move back and forth between their homelands and various jobs in Norway. The vast majority come from Sweden, Poland and Lithuania and work in the construction, shipyard, offshore, fishing and agricultural industries. They will no longer be able to enter Norway from Friday.

“Important work can come to a halt, and family visits won’t be allowed any longer either,” Solberg admitted. Those already in Norway will be allowed to stay, but their reinforcements won’t be allowed in.

There will be a few exceptions, however, for people who perform critical community functions, health care personnel from Sweden and Finland who work for Norwegian health care organizations, those working in the transportation of both goods and people, and those who have court-mandated visitation rights with their children.

Sweden, meanwhile, closed its borders to Norwegians last weekend to hinder the spread of the British variant. Finland did the same this week. Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen will be hit even harder by the border closure than it already has, since most remaining flights abroad are likely to be cancelled.

‘Very dramatic situation’
Thousands of foreign workers have entered Norway just in the past few weeks after the Christmas and New Year holidays, prompting more criticism this week that many were avoiding mandatory testing requirements and even presenting fraudulent certification of allegedly negative Corona test results. Solberg stressed that anyone found to have violated testing and quarantine rules faces large fines.

Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen has also objected mightily to plans by national sports officials to host World Cup skiing and ski jumping events after quarantine regulations were relaxed for the athletes. The president of Norway’s ski federation, Erik Røste, confirmed Wednesday night that the first events at Lillehammer on February 12-14 will now be cancelled. The fate of the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo remains unclear, but Johansen firmly opposes it.

Asked why borders weren’t closed right after the new and potentially more deadly strain of Covid-19 emerged before Christmas, health officials said there were too many questions and unknown factors tied to it. Testing capacity was also strained at that point, and Dr Espen Nakstad of the state health directorate said such a “drastic” step hadn’t been deemed necessary.

“Now there’s a very dramatic situation in Europe, and it’s highly unclear,” Nakstad told state broadcaster NRK. He contended that Norway’s border control had been adequate, but that he and his colleagues now recommended the closure. NRK’s political commentator Magnus Takvam noted that the government’s decision to take “such a drastic step” is an expression “of just how serious the situation is.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund