Introductory remarks at the press conference on December 2020

Prime Minister Erna Solberg´s introductory remarks at the press conference on 16 December 2020.

Ladies and gentlemen,  

Welcome to the last of the many press conferences you have attended in this year.

Well, this is the final one with me, at least.

This will not be quite the same as in previous years.

But most things this year have been different from what they normally are.

 

New situations generate new vocabulary in our language.

Words to describe what we are experiencing.

Things we haven’t needed to describe before.

This year, there has been a lot we have never experienced before.

Self-isolation at home

Digital after-work drinks

Quarantine body

Overnight digitalisation

Emergency national team

COVID-19 police

Social bubble

Distanced walk

 

None of us had heard of any of these phrases just nine months ago.

Now, some of them are part of our daily speech.

We are all looking forward to the day when we don’t need these phrases any more.

Except for one:

COVID-19 vaccine.

Yesterday, we announced that the first approved vaccine may arrive before the end of the year.

Planning for this is already well under way here in Norway.

All municipalities are to have drawn up their vaccination plans by 18 December.

Equipment for administering vaccines has been ordered and will be delivered throughout the country.

Syringes, hypodermic needles, antiseptic wipes and freezers are being sent out.

It is possible that we will be able to vaccinate the first group of people here in Norway just before or after the turn of the year.

This marks the beginning of the end of the crisis that we have lived with for most of this year.

But it will take some time before we can truly say that the crisis is over. Because it will take some time before we manage to complete the full vaccination programme.

 

The year we are soon putting behind us has largely revolved around COVID-19.

And the new situations we encountered have not just required us to coin new terminology.

They have also required us to take action.

And to put it bluntly:

I have done many things during the past nine months that I never imagined I would find myself doing.

I never imagined I would need to have an opinion about how many guests people should have in their own homes on Christmas Eve.

Or about how much distance there had to be between you and another spectator at a football match.

Nor did I ever imagine I would ask the Minister of Finance on a Tuesday to submit a proposition to the Storting for billions of kroner.

And expect it to be presented the following Friday.

And I can report that the expressions on the faces of my staff at the time revealed that they never imagined this happening either.

That was the first of the seven crisis packages we put together.

The situation since March has demanded rapid action and required us to take decisions that are fraught with uncertainty.

Uncertainty about the coronavirus itself and how it spreads, about the impacts of the measures implemented, and about the ensuing economic ramifications at home and abroad.

This is why I have said, again and again, that we will make some mistakes.

That we have to learn as we go. When dealing with uncertainty of this magnitude, it is essential that we are able to correct our course, but we must also dare to act.

That is what we have done our best to achieve.

And according to the OECD, Norway is one of the countries that has coped best with the pandemic thus far, both in terms of the nation’s health and in terms of its economy.

COVID-19 has taken fewer lives here in Norway than most other places.

Fewer people have become severely ill.

So we have avoided undue strain on our health services.

And we have experienced a far less dramatic economic downturn than many other countries.

But the crisis is not over.

And we have seen how quickly the situation can change.

This is why our economic policy must constantly be adjusted to the infection situation.

The schemes that are in place now correspond to the wave we currently find ourselves in.

If we factor in all the compensatory measures introduced in 2020, the public sector has covered well over half the losses sustained by households and businesses.

Thus far, over 34 000 companies have received support through the compensation scheme.

Over 2 000 businesses have applied for grants under the subsidy scheme to take back temporarily laid-off workers.

13 000 person-months have been taken back from layoffs.

And more than 3 700 businesses have been granted loans under the loan guarantee scheme.

Some will say that the expenditures are too high.

I believe it has been both right and necessary to use this much money to counteract the negative impacts of the pandemic and the infection control measures.

Supporting businesses has been the right thing to do.

Because saving viable businesses means saving people’s jobs. The foundation for our welfare-based society.

And there have been many jobs that need saving.

Unemployment in April was record high.

Today, the number of job-seekers is less than half of what it was then.

That is a very good result.

According to the latest figures, the number of job-seekers has begun to decline again.

So far in December, there are roughly 1 300 fewer people looking for jobs.

Now our task is to prevent unemployment from stagnating at a high level.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first crisis my Government has dealt with.

But it has a broader scope than any other crisis in our country in recent times.

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has taken a great deal of our time and consumed much of our capacity.

And if I were to say everything I could about that, we would be here for three hours.

At least.

Alongside the crisis, it has been important for me to keep a focus on the long-term challenges facing Norway.

And to continue to deliver solutions targeted towards the future.

And the Government has made progress – on small and larger-scale issues alike.

Some examples include the:

  • Family caregiver strategy
  • Dementia Plan
  • Strategy for cooperation on combating child poverty
  • New Long-term Defence Plan
  • New Act relating to integration
  • Free choice of schools
  • White paper on Arctic policy
  • National strategy for social housing policy
  • Export action plan
  • White paper on the maritime industry

The list is much longer, but let me instead focus on some of the broader issues.

That will have a profound influence on Norway in the years ahead.

But that have not received as much attention as our crisis management. 

 

In the field of justice, we have concluded the broadest judicial sector reform in modern times.

This will enhance the exercise of due process and reduce court waiting times, and will also increase activities in the district courts.

The police reform is another reform we are beginning to reap the benefits of.

For the first time, the police have met their targets for response times in all three urban categories.

It takes less time for the police to reach the scene after they are notified of an incident.

2020 is also the year when the Government met its target of two police officers per 1 000 inhabitants.

This was widely celebrated by the Norwegian Police Union.

Norway now has the strongest police force in modern times, with an increase of 2 100 person-years since 2013.

All together, staffing levels in the police have increased by more than 3 200 person-years.

This is a greater increase in number of staff than in any other public agency.

 

A lot has happened in the field of transport as well.

A number of road construction projects across the country have been launched, continued or completed during this year.

By the end of 2020, this Government will have opened nearly 800 kilometres of new roads – with 330 of these opened in the past two years.

This has improved safety and reduced travel times.

And that really means something. The drive from Ålesund to Oslo now takes approximately 1.5 hours less than it did in 2009. 

And the travel time along E6 between Oslo and Trondheim and E18 between Oslo and Kristiansand have also been reduced by nearly 1.5 hours.

An increasing number of the cars on the road now are electric.

Just to put the developments into context:

The very first Nissan Leaf was sold in Norway two years before I became Prime Minister.

Today, it is one of the most popular cars sold in Norway.

In October, 60 % of the new cars sold were electric cars.

This has not happened all by itself.

This is the result of a targeted policy to promote a greener national car fleet.

And on the subject of green developments: we have achieved a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions this year as well.

Emissions in Norway are now at the lowest level in 27 years.

That is something we should be proud of.

But there is still much to be done.

In February of this year, Norway became the third country in the world to submit a more ambitious climate target to the UN.

We have raised our target levels substantially.

From minimum 40 % cut in emissions.

To at least 50 % and up to 55 % from the 1990 level.

We have also encouraged the EU to increase its climate target for 2030 to 55 %.

Last week we heard the good news that the EU heads of state have decided to do just that.

Norway’s climate policy is closely linked to EU climate policy.

We apply slightly more stringent rules for calculating emissions reductions than the EU currently uses.

And after the turn of the year the Government will present a climate policy plan showing how we intend reach our targets.

A key part of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without curtailing development.

One of the measures was launched this autumn: the Langship project.

This is the largest climate project initiated in Norwegian industry.

It is designed to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage is both safe and possible.

At the same time, it will help to preserve, restructure and create new industry and business activity in Norway.

Another key element in the effort to reduce emissions and promote green growth is research.

The Government has decided that Norway will take part in the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation.

You may think that sounds a bit dry.

But it is a gold mine for Norwegian businesses.

Because it gives them the same access to research capital as all the other businesses in the EU.

And that is beneficial for Norway.

Recent figures show that Norwegian participants have brought home 2.26 % of the amount provided to Horizon 2020.

That equals more than NOK 13 billion in research funding.

Thanks to targeted initiatives, budgets for research and development have increased by 55 % since 2013.

 

It is not possible to talk about international cooperation without mentioning the UN Security Council.

While there may be some in Norway who have wondered whether there is any point to our taking a seat on the Council, the world is clearly convinced that there is.

Norway received the most votes of the three candidates we were competing against for a seat in the Council.

We have built alliances around ocean issues and efforts to improve global health and education.

Now we will safeguard Norwegian interests and shoulder our share of responsibility in some of the most difficult questions facing the world. This is no easy task. But it is important that countries like Norway do their part.

And finally, I would like to mention Brexit.

Starting in January, the framework for our trade with the United Kingdom will change substantially.

We have been preparing ourselves for various scenarios since it became clear that Brexit was inevitable.

This includes the ‘no deal’ outcome.

Norway is well prepared for most of the situations that can arise.

We have made sure that there will be no tariff increases in trade between Norway and the UK.

That air traffic can continue uninterrupted.

And that the rights of citizens will be safeguarded.

But we cannot safeguard businesses against what happens in the UK.

We are concerned, for example, that customs procedures will become more laborious when all trade between the EU and the UK has to pass through border controls for the first time in many years.

The result may be bottlenecks and long queues for those crossing the border into the UK from 1 January.

I believe that as time goes on, we will see even more clearly how complicated it is to leave the European Economic Community.

Political parties in Norway that think it is a good idea to leave the EEA because we can negotiate new, better agreements should look more closely across the North Sea.

First, the UK has still not succeeded in negotiating a deal with the EU.

Second, estimates indicate that the British economy will be subject to rapid decline.

GDP will permanently be 4 % lower than if they had remained in the EU.

That is more than the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Norwegian economy.

And third, is it really likely that little Norway will succeed in obtaining a better agreement with the EU than a major power like the UK if we decide to pull out of the EEA?

I don’t think so.

Which is why I say, yet again:

As long as I am Prime Minister, gambling with the EEA Agreement is not an option.

The EEA Agreement provides the most essential operating parameter for Norwegian companies and Norwegian jobs.

 

The purpose of this press conference is to sum up our efforts, and I have nearly reached the end of my remarks.

But I think it is important to say a few words looking forward as well.

There are two fundamental questions that politicians have to answer.

Question 1: How can we succeed in creating more private sector jobs and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Question 2: What do we need to do to include a greater number of people in working life, and ensure that fewer are left behind?

How we answer these will be vital in promoting a sustainable welfare-based society for tomorrow.

This was the case before COVID-19, and it will be the case after COVID-19.

The answers to these questions involve much of what I have already talked about today.

They involve research, green technology, infrastructure and market access for Norwegian exports.

Norway has seen progress in all of these areas.

The statistics and results speak for themselves.

But it also involves something more: access to expertise.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, six of ten companies said they lacked staff with relevant skills.

And through the months of the pandemic, we have seen that the first to be laid off are precisely those who have little or no formal competency.

When I speak of greater inclusion, I am referring to two things:

One: that companies have good enough conditions to increase their demand for labour.

And two: that we must make it possible for more people to enter working life.

Those who have been laid off or lost their jobs now must use their time to seek more education and acquire new skills.

To make it easier to return to the job they had before.

Or qualify for a new job.

In its 2020 initiative to boost education, the Government has proposed allocating NOK 2.5 billion for precisely this purpose. 

This money is to be used for:

  • Creating 5 500 new student places and a greater number of flexible study programmes.
  • Increasing apprenticeship grants up to spring 2021.
  • Enabling more school leavers with incomplete schooling to complete their diplomas.
  • Enabling more people to complete their trade certificates in the workplace.
  • Designing skills development plans for vulnerable industrial clusters.
  • Enabling more laid-off and unemployed people to complete upper secondary education.

The education initiative includes these measures and more.

Today we are also circulating for review a proposal that will make it easier to combine unemployment benefits with pursuing an education.

This has been a temporary measure introduced during the COVID-19 crisis.

We believe this scheme should be made permanent.

This proposal is designed to ensure that unemployed individuals do not opt out of opportunities to enhance their job qualifications because it means losing their unemployment benefit.

Specifically, we propose that fully unemployed and fully laid-off individuals are able to combine training with receiving unemployment benefit.

For basic and upper secondary education and vocational training, the scheme will only be available to individuals aged 25 years or older.

For higher education, the minimum age is 30.

The age requirements have been established to avoid a situation in which unemployment benefits comprise a realistic alternative to studies financed through the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund.

This proposal represents a radical shift away from current thinking that a person is either unemployed, actively seeking work and receiving unemployment benefits.

Or is working to qualify for jobs.

It acknowledges that our labour market has changed.

And that people should also have the chance to pursue new skills and knowledge while they are unemployed.

Instead of thinking of the work dimension and the skills dimension as separate entities, we have to view these as something that can be combined.

This is a step towards fulfilling our vision of lifelong learning for everyone.

And that no one becomes obsolete in the workplace.

 

Now it is time to give the floor to you.

But first I would like to take the opportunity to thank the media for excellent cooperation in 2020.

I wish you all an enjoyable, peaceful, adequately socially-distanced holiday celebration!