Ingvild Kjerkol of the Labour Party had some big shoes to fill when she took over as health minister from the Conservatives’ Bent Høie last fall. Both Høie and former Prime Minister Erna Solberg generally enjoyed widespread public confidence for their handling of the Corona crisis, while Kjerkol is under increasingly tough criticism.
She smiles often and had experience with health issues from her years representing Nord-Trøndelag in Parliament. She also had become leader of Labour’s important chapter in Trøndelag. When Labour won the national election in September, she was new Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s natural choice to join his government as health minister.
She’s been mostly on the defensive ever since, however, first for hesitating to impose restrictions when infection started rising again and now for refusing to ease restrictions imposed last month that many feel have become unnecessarily tough.
“She presents herself as categorical and arrogant in her defense of the government’s line,” editorialized Dagsavisen during the weekend. That’s extraordinary criticism coming from a newspaper that’s traditionally backed Labour. It went on to note how Norway has, until recently, tackled the Corona crisis well and kept infection low, largely because of authorities’ openness that left most Norwegians feeling included and confident in their decisions.
“It seems as if our new (Labour-led) government doesn’t understand that at all, when it rejects criticism of infection prevention measures by implying that the people simply must trust the government,” Dagsavisen wrote, adding that “concrete questions about specific restrictions” are met by Kjerkol only with vague references to “the all-holy ‘total picture.'”
Labour mayors ganged up against their government
Her critics have, during the past week, included even other Labour Party mayors around Norway who normally wouldn’t publicly question their own party’s government. Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen has demanded answers as to why it’s necessary to effectively shut down bars and restaurants by imposing a ban on serving alcohol. He claims it’s “crucial” that restrictions put in place are “suitable” and publicly supported. The alcohol ban is neither, he claims.
Johansen is far from alone, joined by Labour colleagues in Kristiansand, Bergen and several other cities, all of them backed by Norway’s national organization representing municipalities, the former head of which is now a government minister himself. “There was a clear signal (after a meeting late last week) that we want to ease the ban on alcohol,” Kristiansand Mayor Jon Oddvar Skisland told newspaper VG.
Kjerkol and Støre have defended the highly controversial ban on the grounds it limited social gathering and thus infection risk. Their critics respond that it’s unnecessary now, and severely threatens the very future of the hospitality business. The Labour government is also under fire from some of their otherwise biggest supporters: the trade union federations representing workers, many of whom are currently laid off.
‘Unfortunate and painful’
Støre has since seemed to relent a bit, admitting to newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that “it’s unfortunate and painful to see the consequences” of the alcohol ban on bars and restaurants, most of which have closed. He said it’s “good” that his government’s Corona containment measures are debated, and said he’s well-aware of the frustration they’re causing.
It’s natural to be criticized by opposition parties in Parliament, but the criticism coming from his predecessor Solberg can’t be ignored since she has more insight and experience in dealing with the pandemic and getting the public behind her. But the Socialist Left Party (SV), on which Støre relies for a majority in Parliament, has also harshly questioned the current restrictions. Employers’ organization NHO, meanwhile, is threatening to sue the government on the grounds it unnecessarily forced businesses to close.
Støre told Aftenposten some rules are likely to be eased later this week, but noted that infection is still rising in Norway, not least in Oslo. That didn’t silence his and Kjerkol’s critics, with Dagsavisen demanding that she be “more open with facts” and show “considerably more humility” than what she’s mobilized so far.