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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Questions fly around king’s ‘holiday’

UPDATED: Norway’s ailing monarch, King Harald V, finally arrived back in Oslo late Sunday night after health problems spoiled what was supposed to be a “private holiday” half-a-world away. It ended up as a glaringly public matter, with the botched trip now costing taxpayers NOK 2 million and still raising questions, even after nearly a week of intense media coverage.

This is the specially equipped SAS jet used for medical evacuations, most recently of wounded Ukrainian soldiers who needed urgent care at hospitals in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. It was sent to Malaysia’s islands of Langkawi this week, however, to fly home Norway’s King Harald V after he fell ill while on a private holiday. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Frederik Ringnes

Detailed answers have been hard to get, with the Royal Palace issuing only a few one- or two-line press releases since first announcing last Tuesday that King Harald, who had turned 87 just a week earlier, had been hospitalized with an unspecified “infection” while on holiday in Malaysia. Military officials, later mobilized to arrange for the monarch’s transport home, contended they don’t comment on operations that are underway. Further questions were referred back to the palace.

One of Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s main anchors, Nina Owing, raised the key question live on the nightly newscast Dagsrevyen when news of the royal drama first broke: She noted how it’s “a 15-hour-flight” to the king’s holiday destination, and thus a long trip even for those much younger and healthier. Malaysia’s Langkawi islands are known for exclusive resorts but are also hot and humid at this time of year. Many have wondered why the elderly monarch and Queen Sonja, age 86, would travel so far, also at a time when ongoing wars have forced changes in flight paths that can make trips to Asia even longer.

King Harald with his mouth literally open when he experienced the Amazon in 2013. He reportedly defied his doctor’s advice against making that trip and, 11 years later, opted to fly off to Malaysia to celebrate his 87th birthday. PHOTO: Rainforest Foundation Norway/ISA Brazil

NRK’s royal reporter responded that King Harald enjoys traveling far and wide, citing trips also in recent years to the Amazon rain forest, the Easter Islands and Antarctica. He and the queen have also continued to make lots of official long-distance trips since turning 80, to destinations including China, Argentina and Australia.

The holiday trip to Langkawi, though, came as a surprise and hadn’t been announced, with the palace saying only that King Harald had celebrated his 87th birthday on February 21 “privately.” His trip abroad emerged only after his son, the 50-year-old Crown Prince Haakon, was listed on the official royal program with the extra title of “regent,” used when the monarch is out of the country or otherwise unable to carry out his duties.

But then things went wrong for King Harald, who’s been in and out of hospital in Oslo with various health problems for years, or simply off on sick leave, most recently last fall after another bout with Corona. He’s made it clear, however, that he has no intention of abdicating like his relative Queen Margrethe recently did in Denmark. He hadn’t commented directly on her abdication in his annual address to the nation on New Year’s Eve, but personally believes that being the monarch lasts a lifetime.

That’s among things that’s made him a popular monarch, but also has made his private holiday trip national, and even international, news. Several Norwegian media outlets including NRK scrambled to send reporting crews to Malaysia’s Langkawi islands, even though it proved a frustrating experience as they were kept outside the hospital with little if any flow of information at the scene.

“We haven’t seen much, apart from some diplomatic cars” arriving at the hospital, newspaper VG‘s reporter Kristina Kinne told the Norwegian journalist union’s online news service Journalisten. “We’re sitting here and sweating.” She added that reporting crews were simply “standing outside the hospital and waiting. We’re not getting any information, really. We speak with security guards outside, who have very clearly been told that they can’t say anything.”

The SAS medevac aircraft now sent to bring King Harald home was used to bring Ukrainian soldiers like this one to Oslo just a few weeks ago. It can accommodate several patients along with closest family, flight crews and medical personnel on board. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Fredrik Ringnes

NRK’s Asia correspondent Philip Lote, normally based in Beijing, was also standing outside the local hospital or along an airport fence, from which he could confirm that the military had sent the specially modified SAS jet to Langkawi that’s been used most recently for transporting wounded Ukrainian soldiers to hospitals in Europe. On Saturday came news from the palace that the king had undergone a medical procedure that implanted a “temporary pacemaker” to improve his heartbeat. His primary care physician had also been flown to Langkawi and stated that the pacemaker would “make his trip home safer.”

By Saturday, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre was having to answer questions about the scope and expense of what led to the king’s medical evacuation from his holiday destination. The defense department had already confirmed that sending the SAS jet and its team of health care workers was costing “just over NOK 2 million” (around USD 200,000). The money will come out of the defense budget, already under pressure because of the rapid military build-up underway since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

“I have made the decision that we will do what’s necessary to bring our king home, and that we provide the aircraft that’s needed,” Støre told NRK. “The military has responsibility for carrying that out and so shall we in our common interest cover the bill.” Støre, who opted to say “our king” instead of “the king,” added that “people get sick, and it’s a special situation when our king gets sick. Then we have a shared responsibility to get him home.”

The prime minister also stressed that the specially equipped SAS jet wasn’t being used this week to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers when it was sent to Malaysia. He said other aircraft could be made available for wounded soldiers if the need arose.

Crown Prince Haakon and his father, King Harald V, are shown here meeting Ukrainian refugees in Oslo in 2022. The king has used crutches for several years and now his son will take over his official duties as regent, while he recovers from a holiday infection. PHOTO: Det kongelige hoff/Sara Svanemyr

Støre said he’d also spoken with Crown Prince Haakon, who also had briefly met reporters in Norway while on a trip to the mountains last week. The crown prince said at the time that he’d spoken with his parents, claimed the king’s health had been improving and indicated the king was in relatively good spirits. He offered no details as to the nature of the infection, however, or why his parents had chosen to holiday in Malaysia, acknowledging that “yes, it is a bit far away from home, but his doctor is there.” Both the crown prince and the prime minister said King Harald had received “good care” at Langkawi’s Sultanah Maliha Hospital, where he reportedly was placed in a suite normally reserved for Malaysia’s own king.

In the middle of Saturday night Norwegian time an ambulance carrying the king and led by six police on motorcycles finally rolled out of the hospital and headed for the airport. Local journalists reported “lots of activity” around the aircraft, as crews boarded before the royal entourage arrived. It took off at 6am with both King Harald and Queen Sonja on board and landed at the military section of Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen late Sunday night after a stop in the Emirates.

Norwegian media reported that as many as 100,000 people were following the progress of the flight on a publicly available online radar system, an indication of public interest in the king’s trip. He was driven by ambulance directly to Rikshospitalet, Norway’s national hospital, in Oslo and will be on sick leave for two more weeks with Crown Prince Haakon taking over his duties.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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