Norway’s hard-pressed government is easing some of the anti-infection measures it imposed in December, even as infection levels set new records every day. No fewer than five ministers justified the changes by noting that those getting infected now aren’t likely to become seriously ill, and they want everyday life to start getting back to normal.
“We’re in a new phase of the pandemic,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre of the Labour Party declared at a much-anticipated press conference Thursday night. Both Labour and its government partner, the Center Party, have tumbled in public opinion polls, especially after they imposed another round of unpopular measures in the midst of the holiday season.
Støre claimed the measures “have worked.” He conceded that infection levels now are high, and likely to keep increasing quickly because of the contagious Omicron variant, but he stressed that hospital capacity is no longer threatened and unlikely to become so.
Lifting ban on serving alcohol, school days ‘more normal’
Støre and his fellow ministers agreed to end a highly controversial national ban on serving aloholic drinks, a move that’s already prompted restaurants and bars to start reopening again. They’ll still have to stop pouring at 11pm, but at least dinner guests can once again order wine with their meals.
The government is also clearing the way for “more normal” school days at all levels of public education. High schools will no longer be on “red-alert” levels and the government is recommending they revert to the more liberal “green,” along with junior high and elementary schools and day care centers. Local authorities will now be allowed the final say.
Støre warned that sick leave is still likely to rise along with infection levels, “and employers must prepare for that.” The government is easing quarantine rules, though, replacing them with self-testing so that close contacts of those infected will still be able to go to work or school unless they test positive as well.
Larger gatherings allowed
Norwegians will also be able to gather in larger numbers, up to 200 at indoor events with assigned seating. Theater operators quickly noted that’s still not many in an audience, suggesting concerts and other performances may still be cancelled. There will be no limits on outdoor sporting events but only 20 people will be able to participate in indoor sports.
Støre and Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol still aren’t keen on allowing use of so-called “Corona passes” that would allow those fully vaccinated and testing negative to gather, saying they haven’t always brought down infection levels in countries where they’re used. “We’re open to looking at them, though,” Kjerkol said, promising a new evaluation of their use within the next few weeks.
Several Corona containment measures will remain in force, including a limit of just 10 guests in private homes, use of face masks in public places like stores and on board public transport, and use of home offices. “We still need to limit social contact,” Støre said, “and that’s something everyone needs to think about.”
‘Close’ to meeting vaccination goals
He said he was encouraged that so many Norwegians have flocked to vaccination centers in recent weeks to receive third doses. “We’re close to our goal of vaccinating 450,000 people a week,” said Støre, who wants all Norwegian adults to be fully vaccinated with third booster shots by the end of February.
“We now know that (the) Delta (variant) is on the way down and Omicron is on the way up,” Støre said, with Kjerkol noting that public health institute FHI predicts a new wave of Omicron infection through the winter.
Støre cautioned that “it can be necessary to tighten up again” if hospitals become over-burdened, “but the goal is to return to as normal as possible.” Or, as Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said, “to make things a little less difficult.” He also announced that compensation for businesses affected by ongoing restrictions can amount to as much as NOK 20.2 billion.
All changes announced Thursday night will go into effect either on Friday or through the weekend, with schools expected to function more normally from Monday.