Commuters return despite third wave

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A sudden sharp rise in Corona infection, not least among workers at some construction sites in Oslo, is prompting Norwegian health officials to brace for a third wave of the virus. The government nonetheless intends to open borders to those living in Sweden or Finland and needing to commute daily to jobs in Norway.

Construction work on investor Petter Stordalen’s new hotel and apartment project at Solli Plass in Oslo was halted this week, after several construction workers tested posted for the Corona virus. At far right, the Norwegian Nobel Institute. PHOTO: NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

After being hit with lots of complaints, and made aware of cross-border commuters left without income but unable to qualify for compensation in either country, Justice Minister Monica Mæland relented. They’ll be able to return to their jobs from Monday (March 1), but will be subject to strict testing and control regimes.

“The infection situation in Norway and Europe means we can’t open up too much,” Mæland wrote in a press release Friday, “but it’s good we found a solution for this small group of daily commuters who’ve been in a very difficult situation.”

Another 551 new infection cases were registered in a 24-hour period on Thursday, fully 231 of them in Oslo. Such relatively high numbers haven’t been registered since January 13, when Norway was in its second wave of infection after the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Now officials are bracing for a third wave. “We’re in a very difficult situation with the steadily larger spread of more contagious strains of the virus and more outbreaks that local municipalities are struggling to contain,” Dr Espen Rostrup Nakstad of the public health institute FHI told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday.

Borders otherwise staying closed
Both Justice Minister Mæland and Labour Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen stressed that their “most important job over the past year” has been to fend off infection while also offering programs to reduce the consequences of Corona containment measures. “The infection situation we had after Christmas made it absolutely necessary to close the borders,” Isaksen said.

Cross-border commuters can soon re-enter Norway, but must be able to show proof of negative Corona tests taken during the past seven days and before entering Norway. Commuters must also be able to document their legal residences in Sweden or Finland and present written confirmation from their employers that they are commuters.

Isaksen otherwise told newspaper Klassekampen on Friday that Norway’s borders are likely to remain closed to most all workers from other countries. They closed January 29, cutting off what’s become a major source of lower-cost foreign labour for Norwegian shipyards, the construction industry and especially seasonal fish processing. The goal is to reduce cases of imported infection in Norway.

Bad news for business
“We don’t know (how long borders will be closed), but I think it will be a long time before we can open up for foreign workers on a normal basis,” Isaksen told Klassekampen. “We must be prepared to have strict entry requirements for several more months.”

That’s bad news for farmers who’ve also come to rely on cheap labour in the fields, especially to pick strawberries in June. Isaksen said he’s also aware that the lack of foreign workers can delay construction projects along with the building and repair of ships and offshore installations.

Another large construction project in Oslo, involving a new hotel and apartments at Solli Plass being developed by investor Petter Stordalen, was shut down this week after several workers tested positive to Covid-19. The city of Oslo has been mass testing workers at such projects that often involved lots of workers brought in from Poland, Lithuania and other eastern European countries.

A full year of Corona
Friday, meanwhile, marked the one-year anniversary of when the first case of Covid-19 was registered in Norway. A Norwegian woman returning home to Tromsø from the Wuhan region of China, where the virus was first discovered, tested positive.

She didn’t become seriously ill, but the virus immediately started spreading, especially after Norwegians returning from skiing holidays in the Alps brought it home with them. The first hospitalization occurred on March 8 and the first Corona-related death was registered on March 12, the same day that the government shut the country down. Restrictions were eased during the summer months, only to be reimposed in early November and toughened further right after New Year.

State health director Dr Bjørn Guldvog told news bureau NTB that his colleagues and the public health institute are still working on new strategy plan to gradually reopen Norway over the next few months. It’s due to be put forth to the government in mid-March. Another study is also underway to determine the effectiveness of Corona containment measures and the consequences they’ve had on the economy. The goal, Guldvog said, was to have a fully reopened society and business life by the end of the year.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund