Both Norway’s Labour Party-led government and the City of Oslo had to give in to another round of Corona restrictions that took effect from midnight Thursday and started being enforced on Friday. The politicians are still resisting a shutdown, but told Norwegians that they’ll now have to start using face masks all over the country again, return to home offices and restrict the numbers of people attending both private and public functions.
“This pandemic must be controlled,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said at a hastily called press conference late Thursday afternoon, adding that the state must be sure hospitals aren’t overburdened while also limiting the tough economic impact of strict new rules.
At the same time, Støre conceded, “it’s highly probable that infection in Norway will increase,” beyond the record numbers of confirmed cases now being registered on a daily basis. “This is serious, and I understand that people are worried.”
He also admitted that his government is “buying time” until it knows more about the new strain of the virus, Omicron, that’s now setting off alarms all over again. Oslo suddenly emerged on Thursday as having what’s likely to be the largest single Omicron outbreak in the world, after around 50 fully vaccinated guests at a company Christmas party were all infected by the Omicron strain last weekend.
That forced Støre and, not least, Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen to impose another round of Corona restrictions both nationwide and in the Oslo metropolitan area. It’s the last thing either wanted to do, with Johansen urging Oslo residents as late as Monday to enjoy the traditional Norwegian Christmas parties known as julebord. “Don’t cancel,” said Johansen on national radio Monday.
By Thursday Johansen had to change his tune, while insisting that all the guests at the infamous Omicron-plagued Christmas party had “done the right things.” They were fully vaccinated, for example, and had tested negative before the party began.
Yet the new Omicron strain spread like wildfire through their group, confirming theories that it’s much more contagious than earlier strains. Prime Minister Støre, keen to protect the restaurant business and rest of the national economy after just two months in office, had to act.
From midnight December 2, face masks will be recommended in public places all over the country, and demanded in most all communities surrounding Oslo including Asker, Bærum, Nordre-Follo and the region served by the Akershus University Hospital in Lørenskog (AUS). That extends from Grue in the east to Nittedal and Hakadal north of Oslo and Moss to the south.
Private social gatherings like weddings can only have a maximum 100 guests, while public gatherings will be limited to 600 people if they don’t have assigned seating. Restaurants will only be able to serve food and drinks to those seated at tables, and the one-meter social distancing rule is back in force. Handshakes and hugging is discouraged, and employers must reinstate use of home offices for at least half their staff.
There will also be mandatory testing requirements upon entry into Norway from abroad, in addition to pre-registration of arrival. Borders will remain open, but everyone crossing them including Norwegians will face lots of questions and demands for documentation in addition to testing.
Since all this will have economic consequences on people and businesses affected, Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said the government will set aside an extra NOK 200 million to compensate those hurt hardest financially. The money will be granted to local governments that in turn can dole it out to needy applicants.
Støre and Johansen, meanwhile, still think it’s possible to have Christmas parties and respect the new rules. They were forced to defend, however, what some view as their leniency until now. Støre claimed it’s largely a matter of Norwegians taking on individual responsibility.
Asked by state broadcaster NRK whether he had underestimated the risks of a fourth wave of Corona, Støre said “no.” He, Johansen and Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol have all been accused of sending out mixed signals lately, when encouraging Norwegians to dine in restaurants, go to bars and enjoy company Christmas parties while also recommending face masks in other venues.
“We’re acting on the information we have now,” Støre said, clearly in defensive mode on national TV. He claimed the situation had simply taken a dramatic turn for the worse in the past few days. Johansen seemed to agree: “If there’s anything the Corona crisis has taught us,” he said at his own press conference Thursday evenning, “it’s that the situation an change quickly.” Right now, in both Oslo and many other cities around the country, it’s changed dramatically for the worse.