Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s statement regarding the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in the Storting, 18 January 2021.
The infection situation
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to address the status and handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
As I wrote in a letter to the Presidium of the Storting on 27 October, the Norwegian Government wishes to keep the Storting abreast regarding the coronavirus situation.
On this basis, before Christmas, the Minister of Health and Care Services requested to address the work regarding the coronavirus pandemic. I have understood that there is also a desire for a more comprehensive briefing.
Following my statement, the Minister of Health and Care Services will provide a briefing regarding the work on vaccines.
A year has now passed since China reported the discovery of a new virus that would come to change all of our everyday lives. Norway quickly put in place diagnostics that could detect the virus, and the first case of Covid-19 in Norway was confirmed on 26 February. Since that day, 3.1 million tests have been performed, 58,000 individuals have had a confirmed case of the virus, nearly 2300 individuals have been admitted to hospital and 517 individuals have perished.
In Norway, we have managed to keep the infection numbers lower than in many other countries, but we have also had to tighten restrictions in order to avoid the situation getting out of control. We continue to have the infection under control, but we have no guarantees that this will last. The situation can change quickly.
Immunisation is fully underway, but we do not yet know the extent to which it protects against transmission of the virus to other people. In any case, it will be some time before enough people are immunised for this to have a considerable impact on the spread of infection.
In many countries, the third wave of infections is described as the worst yet in the pandemic. Societies are locked down and hospitals are filled to capacity. As opposed to this autumn, schools in many countries are also closing. What is happening abroad could also happen here.
We are regularly witnessing how fragile the infection situation can be. A few weeks ago, Ireland went from having some of the lowest infection rates in Europe to being at the top of the statistics. When the surge comes, it can come very quickly.
We saw this in Trondheim as well. Early in December, there was a desire for exemptions from the national infection control measures due to low rates of infection. A few weeks later, they were forced to tighten restrictions by imposing local measures. In the final two weeks of last year, Trøndelag County had the highest rate of infection in the country.
This underlines the importance of acting quickly in response to indications of increased spread of infection. It is easier to scale back strict measures than to halt an outbreak that gets out of control. Once the infection is out of control, the measures will have to be even more intrusive and last even longer. Therefore, it is important to act quickly.
The mutated variants of the virus make the situation even more vulnerable. Mutated viruses from the United Kingdom and South Africa have also found their way to Norway and we have seen other mutations in Norwegian outbreaks.
We are following the spread of the more infectious viruses closely, both in Norway and abroad. We must always be prepared to introduce even stronger measures to stop the spread of infection. At the same time, we do not want measures that are more intrusive than necessary.
The handling of Covid-19 is a challenging balancing act, and we must continuously make trade-offs. We must adjust measures in light of new knowledge and act quickly to make adjustments when this is necessary.
Throughout the crisis, we have attempted to strike a balance between what are proportionate interventions in light of the infection situation and taking a precautionary approach and acting quickly enough. This is no easy task. A measure may be disproportionate early in the week because the infection numbers are uncertain and proportionate later in the week because we are then able to determine that the rate of infection is increasing.
Striking the right balance and avoiding the imposition of highly intrusive measures before there are grounds for doing so may also entail that we have to act quickly when we are advised to tighten the measures. If we are too late to act, the outcome will be even more intrusive and longer measures, next time. The Norwegian Government has therefore throughout this period clearly stated that tightening of restrictions may occur quickly.
How the advice can change was clearly shown over the Christmas holidays. Before Christmas, the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health assessed that there were no grounds for tightened measures during Christmas. On 29 December, the Norwegian Directorate of Health reported that there was still no need to tighten measures, but that they would make a new assessment in the beginning of January.
Then, during the first days of the new year, the situation became more unstable and unpredictable. The R number was then estimated to be 1.3. Up from 0.8 in the beginning of December and 1.0 just before Christmas.
Early Saturday morning on 2 January, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the Norwegian Directorate of Health reported concerns regarding the infection numbers and advised tightening of restrictions at 18:00 the same evening. The Norwegian Government immediately followed up.
At a press conference on Sunday 3 January, I asked everyone to participate in a joint effort to avoid a new wave of infection. We began 2021 by asking the population to put their social lives on hold. We feared that the new year would begin with a new wave.
Among other measures introduced were a national ban on the serving of alcohol, universities, university colleges and vocational schools transitioned to digital instruction and upper and lower secondary schools had to escalate to a red level. We recommended that people avoid non-essential travel both internationally and within Norway, and we asked people to avoid all private visits and organised activities indoors. Measures for students were quickly clarified and communicated already on Saturday.
These are strict and intrusive measures. Unfortunately, they were necessary to be certain that the infection did not get out of control, and to prevent a dramatic increase in hospital admissions – as we have seen in several places in Europe.
Unfortunately, our fears were confirmed by the infection numbers published in week 1. In the first week of 2021, we experienced the highest number of positive tests to date in the pandemic. The R number was then estimated at 1.4.
Today, I am pleased to announce that people throughout Norway participated in this joint effort. This is impressive following almost a year of infection control measures.
In the Norwegian Directorate of Health’s survey on the coronavirus, we see that many people have put their social lives on hold. People state that their number of close contacts is lower than before. The survey also shows that the population is observing the recommendation to maintain physical distancing.
We are now seeing the first signs of efforts at the start of January paying dividends in terms of the spread of infection, even though it is too early to evaluate the full effects thereof. The numbers continue to be too high and the concerns regarding the mutated virus have not been assuaged.
Therefore, the Norwegian Government has now decided to maintain an elevated national level of measures. At the same time, we are making some adjustments. The goal of these adjustments is to make the everyday lives of children and young people a little more normal.
I emphasise that these are national measures. In municipalities with high rates of infection, the municipality may have imposed stricter measures. If so, it is the municipal measures that apply.
The national level of measures for lower and upper secondary schools is downgraded from red to yellow. The municipalities may maintain a red level through this week if they need to prepare the transition. However, municipalities with high rates of infection should consider maintaining the red level in lower and upper secondary schools, and, if needed, also return to a red level in day-care facilities and primary schools.
Otherwise, the national recommendations from 20 January will be as follows:
- Children and young people under 20 years of age may train and participate in leisure activities as usual, both indoors and outdoors. They may also be exempt from the recommendation of a one-metre physical distance where this is necessary for the performance of the activity. Ordinary training activities internally in clubs, teams and associations may therefore be held. However, matches, tournaments and events, including for children and young people, must still be postponed.
- For adults, the recommendation to not conduct organised activities indoors remains in effect. Participation in outdoor exercise is permitted, if it is possible to maintain sufficient physical distancing.
- The elite tiers of sports are recommended to postpone all league matches for two weeks. The Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports is requested to coordinate these efforts with the national federations.
- The recommendation of digital instruction at universities, university colleges and vocational schools is adjusted. We recommend the use of digital instruction where this is possible, that planned events should be digital, and that larger lectures and gatherings should be avoided. All students in areas without high rates of infection should be ensured the option of in-person instruction at least once a week where it is possible to implement smaller groups and in accordance with infection control guidelines.
- Event organisers are recommended to postpone cultural events, courses, conferences and religious and life stance ceremonies that gather individuals from different municipalities. This includes both outdoor and indoor events, but not funerals. The current restrictions on numbers remain in effect and people are requested to respect limitations announced by the event organiser when events are implemented which are reserved for the residents of a single municipality.
- The recommendation to avoid non-essential domestic and international travel remains in effect. Travel to a place of study or for a domestic cottage stay with the persons with whom you reside continues to be considered essential travel.
- We recommend that everyone limit social contact to the greatest extent possible. It is recommended that meetings with other people take place outdoors, and to avoid visits of more than five guests in addition to household members. If all of the guests are from the same household, more visitors are permitted, however, the number of visitors must allow for physical distancing.
- We are changing the rule for private gatherings, such as a birthday celebration in rented premises, allowing for a maximum of ten attendees. If the event is held outdoors, the limit is 20 attendees.
- We also are maintaining the national ban on the serving of alcohol but will also review this again next week.
We are largely continuing the measures from the turn of the year. In somewhat easing certain measures nationally, the Norwegian Government has chosen to prioritise children and young people. This has been one of our most important prioritisations throughout the pandemic. One measure that many have experienced as intrusive is the ban on the serving of alcohol. For many, this entails a loss of revenue and layoffs. For others, it means a loss of a cherished meeting place.
In light of the uncertain infection situation, we have chosen to extend this measure. We know that employees in the hospitality industry are significantly overrepresented in terms of coronavirus infection. In a recently published report by a Danish expert group, it was assessed that bars are among the areas that have the highest impact of the spread of infection.
We are now all tired of the coronavirus. However, we are seeing that we continue to be capable of halting the spread of infection when this is necessary. This is good. Because the threat is not over yet. We must be prepared to introduce new and stricter measures if this becomes necessary.
The Norwegian Government has launched a consultation process regarding an addition to the Norwegian Act Relating to the Control of Communicable Diseases that regulates curfews. No one wants a curfew in Norway. However, if infection gets out of control, entailing that the lives and health of many people are seriously threatened, this may be the last resort at our disposal. We have seen that this has happened in several countries around us. Therefore, the Norwegian Government has determined that necessary preparations should be made, so that a curfew may be introduced within regulated and predictable frameworks, should this become necessary.
However, I must repeat: We hope and believe that this will not happen. And we are working hard to prevent it. However, emergency preparedness is about also being prepared for situations we do not want to experience.
I can assure everyone that all measures are being considered and weighed against the unwanted consequences that may arise when measures are introduced. The measures shall be as targeted and effective as possible and with the fewest possible negative consequences.
At the same time, it is important to clearly state that the alternative to infection control measures is not normal everyday life. The alternative is hospitals at capacity, high numbers of fatalities and more serious economic implications. Experiences from other countries show that a lot is required in order to reduce infection once it has become established at a high level.
Therefore, we will do what is necessary to keep infection under control. People must be prepared to live with varying degrees of infection and infection control measures until the summer, perhaps even longer. At the same time, the measures must not be stricter than they need to be, and we will ease restrictions as quickly and as soon as this is sound.
Throughout the pandemic, the Norwegian Government has been concerned about import infection. Already from mid-March last year, quarantine and a ban on entry to Norway were introduced. Since then, there have been many adjustments, both out of consideration for families who want to be together and people who need to get to work, but also to contain import infection.
In limiting how many people we allow into our country; various considerations must be weighed against one another. Striking the right balance is challenging. The impact on health must be weighed against the clear negative consequences caused by the measures. For families who are unable to see each other. For hotels that remain vacant. For public and private enterprises that are unable to obtain the labour their depend on.
Whether we like it or not, our society is entirely dependent on foreign labour. We are dependent on importing and exporting goods. The Norwegian Government has been concerned with keeping the wheels turning. It is also important that our society be able to maintain the measures until the population has been immunised.
Therefore, trade-offs have been made between costs and benefits throughout. For instance, we have kept the supply lines open. The hospitals have had access for foreign labour as usual, so that people who become sick may receive treatment but with added precautions. The agricultural sector has been able to use seasonal labour, so that they could sow and harvest food. The same applies to the fisheries, enabling the implementation of winter fishing, on which many district communities are entirely dependent to maintain settlements. Shipyards along the coast have been able to use the labour they are accustomed to, so that they can fulfil the contracts they have entered into. The same applies to many other industries. Many jobs would have been lost had we closed the borders entirely.
Throughout, the Norwegian Government has had rules to limit the number of people arriving. There have also been rules for detecting infection and avoiding infection throughout. These rules have changed according to the infection situation in Norway and in the countries from which people are arriving.
Last summer, many countries were green. At the time, there was little risk, and the rules were less strict. Once the infection situation in Europe changed last autumn, the Norwegian Government acted, and we have continuously introduced new measures to avoid import infection and prevent the spread of infection in Norway.
On 31 October, we tightened the rules for persons travelling for work purposes.
When I addressed the Storting on 5 November last year, I informed that the Norwegian Government was introducing a quarantine hotel scheme. Such hotels are now established in all counties. The county governors are responsible for ensuring that there is at all times sufficient capacity in the county.
From 9 November, requirements were introduced that travellers from countries subject to a duty to quarantine must present a certificate of a negative Covid-19 test when they arrive in Norway.
The Norwegian Government also took immediate action over the Christmas holidays to avoid the spread of the virus variant detected in the United Kingdom to the greatest extent possible. Currently, it does not appear that the mutation has gained a foothold here. We have seen in other countries that it has been challenging to prevent the virus from establishing itself. However, it is also important to gain time. If we gain enough time, immunisation and hopefully also the summer heat will help us.
By Easter, a larger share of the high-risk groups will be immunised.
The threat posed by the mutated viruses were a contributing factor to the Norwegian Government on 2 January imposing a duty to be tested for Covid-19 for all persons arriving in Norway. In order to give the municipalities time to build testing capacity, we allowed for the test to be taken no later than one day after arrival. We requested the relevant border municipalities to build sufficient capacity as soon as possible to handle everyone arriving in the country at the relevant border crossings. We have also introduced an entry register. This will make it easier to follow-up and monitor compliance with the duty to quarantine.
As of today, we are further tightening the rule regarding testing upon arrival in the country. Now, all travellers must be tested at the border. The exception is Svinesund, where the municipality requires a few more days to establish sufficient testing capacity. Exemptions may still be granted there, so that those with permanent residence in Norway may enter with a duty to be tested within 24 hours.
In order to assist the municipalities, the Norwegian Directorate of Health has been tasked with establishing a national call centre that will follow-up travellers. Employees at the centre shall be capable to communicating in multiple languages as some travellers do not speak the Scandinavian languages or English.
This will make it easier for the municipalities to monitor whether or not travellers have been tested and undergone quarantine, thereby easing the burden on the municipalities.
All expenses for testing and monitoring activities regarding whether or not travellers have actually taken a coronavirus test will be covered. Those who do not subject to testing risk fines. Persons with false certificates of a negative Covid-19 test may be expelled and fined.
If we compare Norway to the rest of Europe, we have consistently been among the countries with the very strictest rules regarding entry and quarantine. In overviews of what types of measures the populations of various countries are subject to, we see that Norwegians have fewer restrictions in their everyday lives. I believe this has been an appropriate prioritisation.
The strict entry rules we currently have also contribute to relieving the burden on the municipalities. However, they also represent a significant burden on the municipalities with border crossings, airports and ports, even though the state is covering all costs.
There has been a lot of discussion regarding testing at the borders. The Norwegian Directorate of Health’s clear advice to the Norwegian Government has until recently been to prioritise testing capacity in order to halt local outbreaks in Norway. It is also important to remember that quarantine, if it is undergone, is the only thing that guarantees avoiding the spread of infection. Experiences from Iceland show that approximately 25 per cent of those who were infected were not detected by the test that was taken at the border.
There are mainly two reasons why the situation has now changed, and the Norwegian Directorate of Health is now recommending testing at the border. One reason is the desire to delay the spread of the more infectious variants of the virus to the greatest extent possible. The other reason is access to rapid testing. They increase our overall testing capacity. In addition, the rapid tests enable the commencement of isolation immediately following a positive test result. These test also do not require laboratory capacity.
However, I must once again stress that the most important measure is entry quarantine and that this be undergone in accordance with the regulations. Therefore, the Norwegian Government has also implemented a number of follow-up measures in this regard.
The municipalities are under considerable pressure. They must test and conduct contact tracing, they must ensure that all persons who test positive isolate, and they must contribute to the notification of close contacts of the infected person, so that they can undergo quarantine.
The municipalities are also tasked with immunising their residents. At the same time, the municipalities must perform ordinary health and care services and safeguard the services for vulnerable groups, include vulnerable children and young people. The municipalities must also conduct monitoring of whether the rules regarding events, food and drinks establishments and employees are observed. This is also a task that must be prioritised.
Succeeding in immunisation is the highest priority going forward. The municipalities must have the capacity and resources for the major immunisation effort ahead of them. Therefore, we must all contribute to preventing resource-consuming outbreaks and reducing infection among the population.
Amid a challenging situation, I also wish to encourage the municipalities to cooperate and assist one another. The county governors have an important role in contributing to cooperation between the municipalities, including regarding immunisation, which has now commenced nationwide.
In the last two months, the number of hospitalisations and the number of patients who have received ventilator treatment has remained fairly stable, although we have seen a moderate increase in the latter. However, we know this can change quickly. Fortunately, we are now better prepared for an increase in seriously ill Covid-19 patients than we were last spring. The hospitals are monitoring the development in infection numbers closely and can adapt their capacity if the patient flow increases. We have good access to personal protective equipment and medical-technical equipment. Plans have also been made to face a situation where we need to rapidly mobilise for a much higher intensive care capacity. We also know more about the disease and have become better at treating patients. However, we do not want to find ourselves in such a situation. This would entail that other planned treatment would have to be postponed in order to be able to care for Covid-19 patients. Furthermore, we are still not able to save the lives of all those who develop serious disease.
The economic development
Compared to other countries, Norway is currently expected emerge favourably both in terms of health and the economy, as assessed by the OECD, among others. However, we are also experiencing major losses and the situation is fragile.
We are projected to experience a decline in Mainland GDP for 2020 of approximately three per cent. This is less than most other countries in the world. The decline is approximately as forecast in the National Budget, but less than we expected in May, when we estimated a decline of between four to eight per cent.
The fact that the decline has not been larger must be viewed in light of the following:
- We have managed to maintain control of infection.
- Norwegian companies have had access to labour and supplies from abroad.
- Powerful economic measures.
The GPD figure shows the overall situation. Bigger differences are hidden behind the macro figures. The crisis has had very different impacts on the private sector. Service industries such as tourism, restaurants and transport amount to ten per cent of the Norwegian economy, and activities in these industries were in November 25 per cent below the level they were at just before the pandemic commenced. These industries have a greater share of employment than of the GDP, with one sixth of all Norwegian jobs.
At the same time, 90 per cent of the Norwegian economy has an unchanged value creation compared to February of last year. This relatively positive development for this part of the private sector must be viewed, among other things, in light of the measures that have been implemented. The financial packages of measures are effective and are resulting in lower unemployment than we would otherwise be experiencing.
For instance, it appears that the temporary taxation changes for the oil and gas industry have had a positive effect. The Norwegian Petroleum Directorate’s current estimates indicate an annual investment level in the coming years that will result in a higher level of activity than estimated prior to the commencement of the pandemic. This generates jobs on the mainland and contributes to technology development and competence in the supplier industry. Companies with a high need for foreign labour, such as in the building and construction and shipyard industries, and thereby high expenses associated with quarantine, have also received support to cover such expenses.
Many are benefit from having a permanent job and the low interest rate and are saving money because of fewer spending options. Other employees have been laid off and are experiencing uncertainty, insecurity and weakened finances.
Focus has been and must also continue to be on those worst affected.
I am especially concerned about long-term unemployment, for young people, persons experiencing loneliness and those with a weak connection to the labour market. We have also presented targeted measures in this regard. Among other things, we have presented a package of measures amounting to nearly NOK 160 million, directed at vulnerable groups and individuals who are affected by loneliness and isolation. In the budget settlement, we agreed on NOK 400 million in earmarked grants to activity measures and countering loneliness for the elderly. This is in addition to increased efforts on inclusion, education and measures directed at children.
We will continue to focus on vulnerable groups and are currently working on new measures for both persons who are unemployed long-term and vulnerable children and young people.
For the Norwegian economy, 2021 will probably, and hopefully, be a year filled with major differences. The start of the year is strongly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployment is higher than usual, there are a lot of closures and activity is reduced. However, things are clearly better than they were last spring. This is because the infection control measures are less intrusive, and companies have learned how they can adapt costs and operations to the situation. The Norwegian private sector is also benefitting from a higher oil price and increased demand from abroad.
Over the course of the year, we are expecting that the immunisation programme will counter the pandemic, and that we can return to some degree of normalcy in our everyday lives.
The Norwegian Government’s overall strategy for reopening therefore remains unchanged. We know that the most important contribution to activity, employment and growth in the service industries is that the strict measures cease to apply. Then, people will once again be able travel, work, enjoy nightlife and return to normalcy. Therefore, we are implementing strict measures in light of the infection control situation and are implementing a comprehensive immunisation programme.
We know that many people have saved a lot more money than usual during the pandemic. This means that many people have money to spend once the pandemic is over and this will contribute to increased economic growth.
In many forecasts, it is estimated that the Norwegian economy will grow more in 2021 than just a short time ago.
Continued need for economic measures
Even though we are now hopefully seeing the end of the pandemic on the horizon, we must expect to continue living with varying degrees of infection and infection control measures until the summer. And perhaps even longer. Significant uncertainties remain regarding future developments.
I have also said that we must expect a higher number of bankruptcies. Paradoxically, the number of bankruptcies was lower than usual last year. We assume that the sum of the economic measures, including deferred taxes and charges have contributed to this, but we must be prepared for an increase in the number of bankruptcies.
Since March, the Norwegian Government has been stating that we will have economic measures in place for as long as we have infection control measures. We have also shown throughout 2020 that we are continuously following up with measures as the situation develops. This offers predictability. With the agreement with the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP) regarding the National Budget for 2021, the Storting adopted a number of economic measures pertaining to the pandemic just a few weeks ago. These funds are now being put to work.
However, we have also said that the economic measures must be adapted to the infection situation and what infection control measures we have available. This is still the case and will perhaps become even more important as we near the end of the pandemic.
The Norwegian Government will maintain the compensation scheme and other compensatory measures for as long as this is appropriate and necessary, but as soon as the possibilities are there, economic policy must encourage activity and adaptation. This applies to both companies and individuals. This, too, is a balancing act.
Often it is not a case of the more the merrier. Measures that may be convenient in the short term, may weaken the economy in the long term, as many economists suggested already at an early stage of the pandemic. If we uncritically allocate too much to too many over a long period, this will weaken growth, jobs and adaptation in the long-term.
This is not primarily about saving money for the public sector. It is about generating the basis for new jobs, increased activity and increased welfare. And preventing those most vulnerable on the labour market from becoming marginalised. The Norwegian Government’s message of creating more and including more people also applies here.
The goal is for as many laid-off individuals as possible to return to work. However, not all companies will survive, and individual employees must therefore have to consider how best to approach the future. The longer you are unemployed, the harder it becomes to return to work.
Individuals who are laid off must therefore grab new job opportunities when they come along. This is also the background as to why the Norwegian Government believes it is appropriate to be cautious in extending the furlough scheme too far into the future. At the same time, already in early December in the Storting, the Minister of Finance opened for possibility that the Norwegian Government would consider an extension of the furlough scheme in light of the situation.
I am of the opinion that our ongoing handling, the measures that are currently effective and those we are proposing, offer the private sector as much predictability as possible. Unpredictability is precisely part of what has characterised the pandemic. However, predictability is not the same as making the measures permanent, with the same approach over an extended period, irrespective of the infection control measures.
Predictability is about having economic measures adapted to the infection situation. Compared to the countries around us, the Norwegian private sector enjoys good schemes that been put in place quickly.
Our companies can be confident going forward that the Norwegian Government will do what is needed in order for us to make it out of this crisis in the best possible manner. Here, I would also like to refer to the good cooperation in the Storting through many and extraordinary rounds of economic measures. This will also be important throughout 2021.
Safeguarding our companies is important in order for the growth of the economy to be able to resume as quickly as possible once infection control measures are eased, so that as many as possible have a job to go to after the crisis.
In December, the Norwegian Government received support in the Storting to re-establish a broad compensation scheme for the private sector. Since 08:00 today, the Brønnøysund Register Centre has been receiving applications for compensation. The majority of the companies that are now applying will receive funds very quickly.
We have already publicly announced that we will extend the compensation scheme for the private sector up to and including April, and the Norwegian Government is prepared to extend this scheme further if this becomes necessary. We have also submitted a proposal to extend the furlough scheme and the temporary scheme of increased unemployment benefits until the summer.
The private sector is also covered by a number of other schemes, and the Norwegian Government is working on several other measures going forward. These will be presented in a Proposition to the Storting on 29 January. Measures that can enhance the competitiveness of companies and competence of individuals are of particular importance.
- Innovation grants stimulate research and innovation activities of big and small growth companies throughout the pandemic period, despite poor results and liquidity challenges. Innovation Norway has been given increased frameworks for innovation grants and there has been considerable demand for such funds. This is a good sign. This will form a basis for profitable growth over time, at the same time as it is important that competence remains employed. The Norwegian Government will propose further strengthening of this scheme.
- The ban on the serving of alcohol and infection control rules have had a major impact on the hospitality industry. With a larger fall in turnover, the compensation from the state will be greater, from 1 January up to 80 per cent of fixed unavoidable costs. In a decision in the Storting just before Christmas, municipalities in areas with high unemployment rates received NOK 250 million to support especially vulnerable businesses.
- Many tourism and hospitality businesses received funding from the adaptation scheme for the tourism sector last year. The time limit for applications for the second round of the adaptation scheme ended on 8 January, and the scheme has now been expanded to also cover the events industry. The Norwegian Government will further strengthen the adaptation scheme for the tourism sector and there will be a separate announcement for the events industry with subcontractors.
- Both air traffic and public transport have been significantly impacted by the pandemic and infection control measures, and following the agreement on the National Budget, NOK 2 billion has been allocated in 2021 for the purchasing of airline routes. The exemption for air passenger tax has been extended through 2021, while a lower VAT on passenger transport of six per cent was extended until 1 July. An additional NOK 650 million has been allocated to maintaining the train services and NOK 1.25 billion for public transport. This also includes additional agreements with Havlia and Hurtigruten, which among other things entail that Hurtigruten will operate five vessels instead two until the end of March. The Norwegian Government will submit a proposal for the funding of Avinor and will follow-up previous decisions to consider measures for the aviation industry going forward. It is known that the Norwegian Government is also considering a request from Norwegian to contribute with capital in the ongoing restructuring of the company. If Norwegian can emerge from a restructuring process as a company that is financially strengthened and operated in a sound manner, this will be positive for the aviation services and competitiveness in Norwegian aviation.
- The Norwegian Government also sees that there is a need for new economic measures for students who have lost earnings. We will return to the scope and structure thereof, but we still consider that the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund is best equipped to support the students.
- The infection control measures place considerable restrictions on cultural life, and on actors who earn their living from bringing people together. In the budget for 2021, NOK 2.25 billion has been allocated to support schemes for culture, sports and voluntary organisations. We shall have a rich and diverse cultural life, also when the pandemic has ended. Friday last week, applications opened for the NOK 350 million support scheme for large events with audiences, that have had to cancel or scale back as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
As infection control measures are gradually removed and support schemes are scaled back, it is likely that much of the activity in the economy will return, as many will once again attend the cinema, dine out and take weekend trips. We will benefit from having kept businesses afloat, and from having stimulated education, adaptation and competence enhancement.
Should there be a need for additional economic stimulus measures, this must be considered after infection control measures have been removed. Once activity returns to a more normal level of activity, use of funds from the Government Pension Fund of Norway will also have to be reduced and replaced by new activity in the private sector.
Many were looking forward to 2021 with hope and expectation. So far, the year has been a disappointment for many. But we will not give up on 2021.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Immunisation is underway. But we must persist.
When the Norwegian Government today continues strict national measures for at least another two weeks, this is occurring with a different backdrop than what many of the countries around us are experiencing.
The situation globally and in Europe serves as a warning of what could happen if we do not succeed in containing infection.
My colleagues internationally are facing challenging dilemmas with a very high and increased infection rate, health services at the breaking point and extremely high numbers of fatalities. Curfews and very intrusive measures are being extended in many countries. With our backs against the wall, our room for manoeuvre diminishes. We do not want to experience this.
We are now at the beginning of the end of a long and painful marathon. Immunisation is underway. But the last stage may be the most difficult. People are tired, new variants of the virus may present us with steep climbs, and infection in communities remains high.
With a joint effort going forward, we can reduce infection so that the winter and spring will become a bit brighter for all of us. After with each passing week, we are one week closer to having immunised enough people to take back our everyday lives.