Speech/statement | Date: 30/11/2021 | Office of the Prime Minister
By Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (The Storting (Parliament))
Mr President, Thank you for this opportunity to report to the Storting on the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My main message today is that the pandemic is not over. It has entered into a new phase. The winter ahead will require that we successfully maintain control – because COVID_19 will be present among us.
We must unify in support of measures that enable us to deal effectively with the situation.
On the one hand, we must establish the measures needed to avoid overburdening our hospitals and the health care system in general. On the other, we must avoid a new general shutdown, with the major social and economic consequences we know that would have.
I am confident that we can manage both.
But that is only if we stand together and draw on everything Norway and other countries have learned during the almost two years of this pandemic. The most important lesson learned, one that guides the way forward, is that vaccinations have greatly increased our protection. Both as individuals and as a society, we are able to tolerate higher levels of infection than we could before.
But the ability to retain control is crucial.
Therefore, Mr President, the most important measure in this phase of the pandemic – nationally, regionally and locally – can be summed up in a single word: vaccination.
Let me summarise the situation as it is today, the last day of November.
The situation now is that the level of infection in Norway is rising. In the past week, some 18,000 new cases have been registered. That is approximately six times more than at the beginning of October.
There has also been an increase in the number of hospital admissions. But it is worth noting that this increase is much lower than the rise in infections. The main explanation is that the vaccine protects against serious illness.
There are now about 250 patients with COVID-19 in Norwegian hospitals. Fifty-eight of these are in intensive care units. This represents roughly a doubling since the beginning of October. COVID-19 patients now account for just over 20 per cent of all patients in intensive care. Several hospitals have postponed planned operations. If this trend continues, more postponements will be necessary.
The burden on municipal health and care services has grown. We hear this from many parts of the country. I have heard it directly from hard-working women and men who care for the elderly or serve in other parts of the system. And we are entirely dependent on the municipalities to the pandemic as it continues.
The new virus variant that researchers in South Africa discovered last week, called Omicron, creates additional uncertainty about the way ahead.
Preliminary expert assessments of the Omicron variant indicate that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant. But so far it appears unlikely that the Omicron variant causes more serious disease.
Nearly 90 per cent of the adult population is now fully vaccinated. This places Norway high in the global rankings. Everyone over the age of 12 has been offered vaccination. We are far better protected than when the pandemic started.
Hospital statistics paint a clear picture: patients admitted to hospital who are fully vaccinated have a median age of about 75. The majority have conditions that elevate the risk of serious illness.
The unvaccinated patients are much younger. Their median age is about 50. The unvaccinated account for 40 per cent of patients admitted, though they only make up 10 per cent of the adult population. This tells us one thing: the vaccine works.
With this in mind, the Government has revised Norway’s pandemic strategy.
It is a strategy designed to control the pandemic through the winter.
It is a strategy that seeks to prevent overburdening hospitals and the municipal health services. Low infection figures are not in themselves a goal. COVID-19 is here to stay – how long, we do not know, but we must adjust to the possibility that it may be a long time.
Protecting children is a fundamental priority and crucially important. As far as possible, the economy and jobs will be protected. Public services will operate at a reasonable level. Controlling COVID-19 is a matter of finding the right balance.
The strategy is based on what we know has worked in earlier phases of the pandemic, such as extensive testing to gain control over the spread of the virus and isolation in the event of illness. Municipalities will continue to play a major role by implementing measures tailored to their own situations. They must be prepared to adopt proportionate measures that will hit the mark.
Again – and most vitally: such a strategy is based first and foremost on strengthening what we know is the single most important national tool at our disposal – effective vaccination.
Vaccine coverage in Norway is good. However, there are 350,000 people in Norway over the age of 16 who have not been vaccinated. And there are about 600,000 who have not received at least two doses.
The oldest among us have a very high rate of vaccination. The young are close behind. We need more people between the ages of 25 and 40 to join in, as well as certain groups born abroad. Convincing these groups to get vaccinated will make a big difference. It will lighten the pressure on the health care system. It will help us all to live as normally as possible.
So, Mr President, my clear message to all those who so far have said no to the vaccine is: go and get vaccinated.
I said earlier that it was difficult to predict how the pandemic will evolve. On the basis of advice from health experts, a decision was made under the previous Government that municipalities should prioritise administering the influenza vaccine first, before giving people over 65 a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.
The seasonal flu has failed to materialise as yet. The number of COVID-19 patients has increased. Meanwhile we are learning, through experience and research, the importance of a third vaccine dose to protect against COVID-19. It is now well documented.
International studies indicate that the booster dose has a positive effect on the elderly. Those who have had a third dose are significantly less at risk of becoming infected and significantly less likely to be admitted to hospital with COVID-19. The booster also appears to take effect shortly after being administered – protecting the recipient more quickly than the second dose.
So the most important measure right now, in what remains of 2021, is for everyone over the age of 65 to receive a booster dose as soon as possible. If we manage that, the need for more forceful measures will be considerably reduced.
It is now time to speed things up. We must switch into a higher gear. Going forward, the municipalities must achieve the same high tempo of vaccination as they did at their peak earlier this year. This means the municipalities must plan to administer 400,000 doses per week and continue that pace, as things now look, through April 2022.
When the municipalities have administered a booster to everyone over 65, they will immediately move on and provide boosters to everyone over 45.
Our plan is for the entire adult population, including those between 18 and 45, to be vaccinated with a third dose before Easter. If we manage to get the vaccines out quickly, and if all else goes well, the pressure on municipalities and hospitals will soon diminish.
The municipalities have made a solid effort to date. Now they must remobilise. We will set out specific vaccination-related requirements in new regulations. All municipalities must provide vaccination services with no appointment needed, and with some opening hours available outside the normal workday.
We know the municipalities have come up with many creative and effective solutions to make it easier for people to come get vaccines. We also know that many of them have collaborated closely with employers to achieve that goal.
My message is: use everything you have learned and experienced with regard to maximising capacity.
There have been drop-in services outside normal working hours and pick-up services to drive residents to the vaccination site. There have been programmes for home vaccination and school vaccination. In addition to the contributions of health care professionals, help has come from pensioners, students and volunteers. All these efforts – and perhaps more – must be activated again.
This weekend many of us read about Hammerfest municipality. Health workers there are nearly finished administering booster doses to everyone over 65. In Oslo, too, the pace of vaccination has picked up, and almost 60 per cent of people over 65 have now received a third dose.
In some municipalities, questions have been raised about the costs of this renewed vaccination drive.
Mr President, let me be clear. The state will pay the bill for vaccinations in 2022 as well. That includes the cost of speeding up vaccinations and expanding accessibility. In addition, compensation will be provided for the expense of testing and other necessary coronavirus-related measures.
We must learn to live with COVID-19 not just at home, but also at the border and when we head out to travel. The Government recently permitted entry into the country for all foreign nationals entitled to enter under the Immigration Act. This was done in accordance with clear recommendations by our health experts. But it is by no means uncontrolled entry.
We introduced two other measures at the same time:
- First, we tightened controls. As a general rule, all travellers are now to register themselves in the entry registration system. We also increased staffing at the National Centre for Control of Travellers to Norway, so that it can once again contact people entering Norway who have to undergo quarantine.
- Second, we tightened entry procedures for the unvaccinated. They must now take a test before coming to Norway, and be tested when they arrive in the country.
The Government is following developments closely. The infection situation remains uncertain and opaque in many countries. If necessary, we will introduce stricter rules.
We did so last week. The Government took a number of steps with immediate effect to slow and delay the spread of the new coronavirus variant. We have strengthened border controls and introduced additional testing requirements as well as a quarantine hotel requirement for travellers from the affected countries in Africa.
We have done this in concert with a number of European countries. We are part of a larger community. We share an outer border, and the measures we impose work better when we pull in the same direction.
We will continue to follow developments involving the new variant in the period ahead. The Norwegian Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health have the ongoing task of evaluating national and local measures. And let there be no doubt: the Government is prepared to take further action quickly if the situation dictates.
Living with COVID-19 requires that we protect the health services and hospitals and prevent them from becoming overloaded.
I would like to thank all employees in these services – in the hospitals, and out in the municipalities. You have persevered for such an incredibly long time, and have made an impressive effort in this important work.
Of course, I know that gratitude alone is poor recompense for everyone who has toiled through the pandemic from the start.
Because the coronavirus is not the only challenge facing the health services. The municipalities and hospitals are under pressure for a variety of reasons. Sick leave rates are high, and there is limited access to qualified personnel.
Many children are currently infected with RSV and require hospital treatment. Fortunately, we see signs that this virus is now on the decline.
This year’s influenza season has not yet started. But an increase in flu cases will come on top of everything else for the already hard-pressed health services.
We also know there are many patients ready for discharge from hospitals who have no choice but to remain there. The hospitals are trying to resolve this situation in cooperation with the affected municipalities.
For years, hospitals have not received enough allocations. We must acknowledge that Norway’s intensive care capacity is inadequate. Limited intensive care capacity in hospitals is a strong indicator of the need for measures that in turn may have major economic consequences. It is something we must address. It takes time, but capacity must be improved.
The Government has proposed an increase in hospital funding of NOK 700 million beyond what is contained in the Solberg Government’s proposal. With regard to intensive care capacity, we have enough respirators, but more qualified personnel are needed.
The work being done in connection with the health personnel commission is important. The commission will promote measures to train, recruit and retain qualified health personnel – all across the country. We have said that we will increase basic funding for the hospitals. This will provide a foundation for strengthening emergency preparedness.
We will cooperate with the regional health authorities and share the responsibility for increasing capacity moving forward.
Mr President, if we are to succeed in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, the onus is on the municipalities to take action to control the spread of disease locally. Now as before, the role of municipalities is key in dealing with the pandemic.
Local and regional infection control measures, adapted to the infection situation at hand, are crucial.
A number of municipalities, such as Trondheim and Tromsø, have now implemented local measures and issued advice and recommendations to their residents to reduce the risk of infection and avoid undue pressure on the health and care services. We know that actions taken at the municipal level are effective.
COVID-19 certificates can be used to grant exemption from infection control restrictions for vaccinated people and for those who have recently tested negative. This may enable restaurants, concert venues and cinemas to remain open for normal business, even if the municipalities where they operate have instituted local measures.
The use of COVID-19 certificates will help to create a more predictable foundation for business activity. In our dialogue with the business community and with the employee and employer organisations, we have met broad support for the use of COVID-19 certificates. We are also following the practices being implemented elsewhere in Europe closely.
We expect that measures adopted at the municipal level will be targeted, proportionate and specifically designed for maximum effect on local infection upswings. The foundation of an effective strategy to maintain control through the winter is a rigorous vaccination pace, extensive testing, isolation in the event of illness, control over travel into Norway and wide-ranging municipal and regional authority to impose measures.
However, intensified national measures will still be needed in certain situations.
Such a situation now confronts us. Even with sound local decision-making, a continued increase in hospitalisations and deaths is expected. The Government therefore believes the right course is to introduce additional restrictive measures at the national level.
One of the Government’s crucial concerns is ensuring that everyone has access to good-quality health services, and that health care staffing is sufficient to provide those services.
That is why we are now introducing national measures. These actions will help us to keep the situation under control through the winter. I would ask everyone to please comply with them – so we can avoid stricter measures later.
We are introducing two rules:
- First: If you live with someone who is confirmed as infected, you must stay at home in quarantine until you have received a negative test result. This applies to adults whether vaccinated or unvaccinated. To be released from quarantine, vaccinated people must be retested after no more than seven days. Unvaccinated people must tested themselves daily for seven days by rapid test, or every other day by PCR test. For children, this is not mandatory, but a recommendation.
- Second: If you become infected with COVID-19, you must be isolated for five days. This is the case whether you have been vaccinated or not. Until today, the requirement has been 2 days for those who are vaccinated without symptoms. In addition, you must be fever-free for 24 hours before leaving isolation.
In addition, we are issuing a set of new recommendations:
- A national recommendation to use face masks during in-person interactions with the health and care services.
- A national recommendation to use face masks on public transport, in taxis, in shops and in shopping centres where it is not possible to maintain adequate distance from other people.
- We are also continuing the recommendation to regularly test school pupils in areas where infections are on the rise and the health and care services are under pressure.
- Finally, the Government is asking municipalities where infections are on the rise and the health services are under pressure to consider expanded use of working from home.
The measures I have mentioned enter into force tomorrow and will apply until further notice. Municipalities must still assess the need to employ stricter measures of their own. Such action should be coordinated regionally if the municipalities and the Office of the County Governor view this as necessary.
In the present situation the Government believes it is neither right nor proportionate to ask everyone to stay home, to close down cultural and leisure activities, or to switch over to digital education.
The price of shutting down is well documented and extremely high, both economically and socially, and is not a proportionate response to the current situation.
We know that closure gave rise to loneliness and unemployment while aggravating the problems of people already suffering from financial difficulties. We also saw a large rise in mental illness – especially among our young. The elderly were left on their own, our children were deprived of classroom instruction, and too many children and young people abandoned sports activities.
We can steer clear of such a shutdown now. The vaccine provides us with protection, and more vaccinated people means even better protection. If you get vaccinated, you are protected, and you also protect others.
The Government has attached importance to designing measures that it considers proportionate and relatively unintrusive, and special emphasis has been given to protecting children and vulnerable groups. It is also crucial to avoid large-scale ripple effects such as reduced activity in events and cultural life, and to ensure that society can in general function as normally as possible.
Nevertheless, Mr President, let me emphasise this: the Government is ready to take additional steps quickly if the ones we are now introducing do not have sufficient effect, or if a new situation arises that demands quick action. The Omicron variant creates uncertainty about what measures will be needed going forward.
But as the situation unfolds we are observing it closely in consultation with the appropriate authorities, and we are prepared to introduce whatever measures may be necessary.
The pandemic also requires us to look beyond our country’s borders.
We see again and again how mutations, like the recent Omicron mutation, can emerge in areas with low vaccine coverage. The pandemic will not be over until the whole world has been vaccinated.
The Government wants Norway to remain at the forefront of the global pandemic response. We have long experience leading international vaccine efforts. Norwegian leadership in establishing GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance is one example. I would like to acknowledge the way the Solberg Government took on responsibility for strengthening international vaccine collaboration.
The Government will meet its responsibility. We have delivered on the promise to share five million vaccines that we do not need ourselves with other countries. In total, we expect to help in providing access to more than 30 million vaccine doses globally. We are working with the European Commission and EU member countries to facilitate donations from EU vaccine purchases.
We are adding NOK 2 billion to the effort to provide equitable access to vaccines, medicines, testing capacity and protective equipment. Our contribution is channelled through the ACT-Accelerator, a partnership working towards the rapid development, production and equitable distribution of COVID-19 tests, treatment and vaccines. I will front this collaborative effort jointly with the President of South Africa.
Norway will also work closely with the EU on vaccines and other health preparedness issues.
Work is also underway to develop new drugs to combat COVID-19. These can play an important role in preventing serious illness and avoiding overburdening of the health and care services. The first EU approvals by the European Medicines Agency may come in the near future. The Government is working with the EU to procure such drugs.
Norway has dealt with the pandemic more successfully than most other countries. Now we must keep the situation under control through the winter. There is every reason to believe that we will succeed at this, too.
High-paced vaccination is something we can manage – one dose, two, three, maybe eventually even more than that.
We have the financial muscle to keep hospitals and municipalities up and running, and we are keeping a close eye on developments at workplaces and in the business community.
We have access to widespread expertise in the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health, and our policies are based on expert advice. We listen carefully to that advice. But ultimately, it is a political responsibility to take the decisions. So it was for the previous government, and so it is now.
One thing we know, Mr President, is that we will make mistakes.
Now, as before, difficult decisions will have to be taken despite the uncertainty. But we will make our choices on the basis of informed, expert recommendations. We will learn from experience and exploit the strengths of democracy to continue expanding our knowledge at all times, thereby laying a solid foundation for making the best possible choices.
The Storting is an arena for political debate where agreements and disagreements are always on display. Our COVID-19 response is not exempt from these.
But as we enter the next phase of the pandemic – one in which we must control the virus, protect our health care system and avoid a widespread shutdown – let us ensure that this chamber shows its best side. Do not create fear. Do not chase headlines. Let us serve, to the best of our ability, all those who are now worried, anxious, and exhausted.
We can do that most effectively, I think, by being honest about the period we are heading into. A period in which there is no assurance the virus will disappear. It must be held in check. The goal is to live with the virus without over-pressuring the health services or introducing measures that penetrate too deeply into our lives.
Together, we can do this.