NEWS ANALYSIS: A government decision late last week to give priority in the vaccination queue to Members of Parliament, judges and a few hundred other public officials (including themselves) has set off heated debate. Now several MPs and Health Minister Bent Høie himself have declined the offer to get vaccinated earlier than their age group would otherwise allow, allegedly to avoid complaints that they’re cutting in line.
It’s all turned into a classic portrait of Norway’s egalitarian society, and how no one is supposed to get special treatment. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who turned 60 in Februay, didn’t receive her first shot until just a few weeks ago. Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of Norway’s public health institute FHI’s that runs Norway’s vaccination program, was vaccinated after that, at her own neighbourhood vaccinatinon when her turn came up in accordance with her age.
That’s how things generally work in Norway, but already in January questions arose over whether those in charge of getting the country through the Corona crisis should get vaccinated as soon as vaccine arrived in the country. It could be important, after all, for top officials in charge to be protected as soon as possible.
Instead, as newspaper Aftenposten noted on Wednesday, “even the most central crisis leaders … have patiently waited for their turn.” The government had accepted health authorities’ recommendations that the elderly and those with underlying health problems be vaccinated first, followed by declining age groups. Most communities are now vaccinating residents in their 60s and 50s, with everyone over 18 expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of the summer.
On Friday, however, just before Norwegians headed off on the last long holiday of the year until Christmas, came news that the government had secured and earmarked 500 vaccine doses for top elected politicians, members of the Supreme Court and other top personnel at the Royal Palace, in government ministries and various state agencies.
The decision, news bureau NTB reported this week, was at odds with FHI’s own recommendation. FHI continued to prioritize those most at risk of becoming seriously ill from the Corona virus, and to allocate more vaccine doses to areas where infection was highest.
Justice Minister Monica Mæland defended the government’s decision on the grounds it would “address and take care of important functions” in Norwegian society. Vaccine wasn’t being allocated to specific people, she noted at a press conference Wednesday, but to specific functions. Perhaps the government recalled how Norway, when hit by the plague back in the mid-1300s, lost most of its royalty, clergy and other forms of leadership. The country eventually fell into the hands of the Danish royalty and it took around 500 years before Norway re-emerged as its own sovereign nation.
Few if anyone fears Norway’s sovereignty is at stake now, but the goal, according to the government, is to prevent people in critical positions from getting sick. Aftenposten editorialized on Wednesday that the only criticism of that should be over why the government didn’t make arrangements to vaccinate key officials much earlier.
Criticiam is nonetheless flying for all kinds of other reasons, including predictable claims that the offer is elitist in nature and comes at the expense of bus drivers, teachers and others who have daily exposure risk at work. Several top politicians in Parliament have been declining the government’s offer to get vaccinated by military personnel in a special program this week at the ancient Akershus Fortress and Castle. News bureau NTB reported that the leaders of most of the opposition parties in Parliament have all decided to turn down the opportunity to get vaccinated and wait their turn instead – except for Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who turned 60 last year and already has been vaccinated through his neighbourhood’s program.
‘No thank you’
“I have decided to say ‘no thank you’ to this offer,” the Progress Party’s new leader Sylvi Listhaug told NTB, “but I of course have respect for those who choose differently.” So does the Center Party’s leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum: “I have full understanding for those who accept this offer (of a vaccination earlier than otherwise scheduled),” Vedum told newspaper Dagbladet. “I personally have chosen to decline the offer from the government.”
Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left Party (SV), also turned down the offer of an early vaccination. “We think it’s strange that this offer is coming now, and that Parliament wasn’t consulted in advance,” Lysbakken told newspaper VG. “I can understand that other groups in more exposed lines of work are reacting to this.” He was referring especially to several school teachers who’ve been interviewed by various media around Norway and wished they’d been given priority in the vaccine queue.
Both Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of the Reds Party, and Torstein Tvedt Solberg of the Labour Party were also critical of the government’s vaccination program for Parliament and other top officials. “I think (the vaccine) should go to a teacher or another employee at a school or day care center,” Solberg told NTB.
Others called that “political positioning” of their own, leaving MPs who accepted the offer on the defensive. MP Tuva Moflag of Labour was among those accepting the vaccination offer, along with MPs Ingvild Kjerkol and Eva-Kristin Hansen of Labour, Marit Arnstad of the Center Party, Peter Frølich of the Conservatives and Sivert Bjørnstad of Progress. “In principle I think everyone offered the vaccine should accept it when offered,” Moflag wrote on social media. “We break infection protection rules every time we meet to vote, and I end up putting my husband at risk.”
Even though most meetings have been held digitally during the Corona crisis, others have noted how MPs have still had to travel in and out of regions with varying degrees of infection. Questions also flew at Wednesday’s press conference over why the government hadn’t prioritized those running Norway earlier.
Debate has now centered around Health Minister Bent Høie himself, not least after he declined the vaccination offer himself. He’s been accused both of undermining his own government and even setting a poor example by delaying his own shot. Høie defended his decision, claiming that he simply preferred waiting until it’s his turn in the vaccine queue in his home district of Stavanger.
Mæland told reporters that she had accepted her government colleague’s decision. She admitted that “no one wants to be seen as sneaking into the vaccine queue,” but repeated that the government isn’t allowing that. It’s just trying to keep important state officials from getting infected.
Mæland said the decision to offer vaccinations ahead of schedule for MPs and other top officials “was difficult, and it would have been easier to let it go, but we also are responsible for preparedness.” Solberg told TV2 that “it was time we vaccinated those on the front line for safety’s sake. The leadership we have must function.”
Aftenposten editorialized Wednesday that “Democracy must also be protected, with vaccines.” Newspaper Dagsavisen opted to join the critics, noting that not even all health care personnel have been vaccinated yet in Norway: “Our national fellowship is weakened every time important decisions on allocation of the precious vaccine are viewed as unfair or can’t be understood.” The health minister’s own dose along with others that won’t be used will likely be returned to the health institute’s public program.