Address by Prime Minister Erna Solberg at the Storting about the plan for the reopening of society, 7 April 2021.
Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Storting about the plan for the reopening of society and how we may return to a normal everyday life.
The purpose of the reopening plan is to create better predictability.
However, a lot is still unknown: How much will the virus spread during spring and summer? How fast will vaccines be supplied? How well do the vaccines prevent the spread of the virus? Will new mutations appear?
Unfortunately, much uncertainty remains, which cannot be eliminated by a plan. Therefore, it is not possible to say with certainty when various parts of society may reopen. The process must be based upon the observed development of infection rates, hospital admissions, the capacity of the health care services, and the vaccination progress.
The steps for the reopening of Norway must be based upon data, not dates.
The plan presented by the Government today is based upon expert advice from the health authorities. We will not give any specific dates but will clarify which conditions must be met before opening up, and the order in which the various parts of society will reopen. This will provide some predictability, and the Government will follow this up along the way with supplemental information about how things are progressing. Therefore, the plan will become increasingly specific the closer we get to reopening.
Plan for a gradual reopening of society
Last year the Government made a strategy for how to handle the pandemic. The overarching goals and priorities remain and will also apply to the reopening process. Our goal is still to retain control over the spread of the infection. In this way, we will safeguard the population’s health, reduce disruptions to society and protect our economy. When we are to reopen society, we will again put children and young people first. Next, we will prioritise jobs and the business sector.
The reopening will happen step by step and in a controlled fashion. When one step has been completed, the general principle will be to wait three weeks before moving on to the next. Once we see that it is safe and that infection rates are not rising again, we will move on to the next step of the plan.
The Government’s reopening plan consists of four steps with an overview of which restrictions may be eased at each step.
The first and preparatory step is to return to the national restriction level we were at prior to 25 March when the Government implemented new national measures to curb the infection increase in the weeks before Easter.
The measures seem to have had the desired effect. The rate of newly registered cases dropped in the course of Easter. The number of hospital admissions, however, is still at a level not seen since April of last year.
Many people travelled during Easter, and fewer have gotten tested. We have seen the same pattern during other vacation and holiday periods. More ordinary weekdays must therefore pass before we learn more about the infection situation following Easter. Next week, the Government will consider whether it is prudent to reverse all or some of the national measures implemented 25 March.
I will now say more about how we are to assess when it is time to move on from one step of the reopening plan to the next.
As already mentioned, to retain control, it will be necessary to first see the results of each completed step before moving on to the next. For the data to be sufficiently reliable, approximately three weeks need to pass between each step. We must be prepared to reverse the easing of restrictions if infection rates flare up again.
The situation will be assessed according to these three aspects:
- Infection rates and the disease burden
- The capacity of the health care services, at the municipal level as well as in the specialised health services
These three aspects must be assessed together and must always be weighed against the measures’ consequences for people and the economy.
The first aspect to consider is the infection rates and the disease burden. There is still a risk that the spread of infections will spiral out of control. As we have observed in recent weeks, the infection situation may change fast so long as significant parts of our population remain unvaccinated.
We assume that this year, too, the spread of infections will decline in the summer season. However, the extent of the decline is uncertain, particularly since new and more infectious variants of the virus have appeared.
Before we reopen society, infection rates must be low and stable, and the number of hospital admissions needs to decline from present day levels.
At present, different mass testing pilots take place in Oslo, Bergen, Askøy and Molde. The pilot at Blindern is completed and showed that about 50 per cent of the students got tested. Of the total of approximately 2700 tests, 7 were positive.
Now, after Easter, the goal is to get underway with systematic and regular testing in schools. Municipalities with the highest infection pressure in school-age children and teenagers will be prioritised.
Rapid tests and self-tests are well suited for mass testing because such tests will not affect laboratory capacity, and because they are readily available to us.
Mass testing may enable an increased number of pupils returning to school for in-person classes and for us to move more rapidly on to new steps of the reopening plan, provided that infection rates are suppressed.
The capacity of the health care services is the next aspect in the assessment of what to reopen. This applies to the municipalities’ capacity for testing and infection tracing, as well as to the capacity of the hospitals. We must ensure that COVID-19 patients, as well as other people in need of treatment, will receive the best possible care. Experience indicates that capacity for infection tracing will be impacted before that of the hospitals, particularly during local outbreaks.
The third aspect to be assessed is vaccination progress. As an increasing number of the population is vaccinated, the average age of infected people will drop. Young people who get infected are less likely to become severely ill and die, enabling us to handle a somewhat higher infection level.
At present, 1 million vaccine doses have been administered in Norway. 725,000 people have received their first dose, and 290,000 have had their second dose. Our most elderly citizens have now received both vaccine doses, and many municipalities are underway in administering vaccines to people under the age of 75.
Our best estimate, provided that vaccines are delivered as promised, is that everyone over the age of 18 shall have been offered their first vaccine dose in the course of July. However, this estimate is uncertain. As we approach summer, PfizerBioNTech and Moderna will deliver an increasing number of vaccine doses. We expect the Janssen vaccine to be delivered from April on, but we will have to wait until June for the lion’s share of vaccines from this supplier.
The status of the AstraZeneca vaccine is still unclear.
The Government is now working on developing a corona certificate, allowing people to document that they have been vaccinated, have had a COVID-19 test or have natural immunity after having recovered from COVID-19. Norway participates in the European initiative on corona certificates, and the Norwegian solution will be in line with the EU Digital Green Certificate. The EU Commission and the WHO have a clear ambition for the European solution to be part of and adapted to an international solution.
The Government is also exploring whether an additional, simplified corona certificate may be used domestically in order to expand and speed up the reopening process through digital documentation of individuals’ testing and vaccine status.
The Government will also consider new guidelines for vaccinated people. Intense research focuses on whether the vaccines, in addition to protecting against infection, will have a transmission-blocking effect. Recent reports suggest that this is the case. Thus, the risk is reduced that vaccinated people transmit the infection to others. This is very good news.
The National Institute of Public Health and the Norwegian Directorate of Health are now assessing the bases of knowledge, and will update their recommendations when it is advisable to do so. For example, we may consider allowing exemptions from the duty to work from home, and also allowing a household to receive more visitors. We must also consider the rules for infection quarantine, entry quarantine and waiting quarantine for vaccinated people. We will come back to this at a later date.
With a few exceptions, Norwegian borders are to all intents and purposes closed for people not residing in Norway or who are not Norwegian citizens. People exempt from the restrictions are subject to a strict entry regime. Consequently, the number of people crossing the border is low. At Easter there was a 96 per cent reduction of international travellers departing from Norwegian airports, compared to 2019.
Throughout the pandemic, Norwegian entry restrictions have been among Europe’s strictest. They will continue to be so. However, we must meet the needs for safe and predictable transport of medication to Norway, and for goods and critical staff which we cannot source In Norway. If we cannot do that, Norway will grind to a halt.
At our borders, too, reopening will happen gradually and controlled. When considering the pace with which we may open the borders for new groups of travellers, we will, in addition to the three aspects, also take into account the infection situation in other countries and the experiences we continuously amass from the present entry regime. Therefore, we cannot be certain about just how much it will be possible to ease border restrictions at the various steps of the plan.
The government has established an application-based entry scheme for people entering Norway to work here. The scheme, starting 20 February, permitted entry of foreign nationals having technical competence who carry out duties that are strictly necessary for ensuring that activities continue at Norwegian businesses. The scheme has now been extended to incorporate foreign employees with special skills crucial for building, operating or maintaining infrastructure.
The Government considers further expanding this scheme next week. Initially, the overarching goal will to prioritise foreign employees who can contribute to curtailing the loss of value creation and jobs, infection control permitting.
I will now move on to say more about the national measures involved at each of the four steps of the reopening plan.
I would like to emphasise, however, that the population must still be prepared for stricter local or regional measures to be implemented for shorter or longer periods. The risk of local outbreaks will remain as long as children and young people are not vaccinated. Significant regional outbreaks may also make it necessary to put the national reopening on hold.
As already mentioned, next week the Government will consider whether all or parts of the national restrictions implemented before Easter may be removed. This is step 1 of the reopening, and it may be regarded as a preparatory phase.
At step 1 we will among other things consider allowing:
- a maximum of 5 guests in private homes
- the serving of alcohol until 22:00 hrs, but only to guests also being served food
- changing the recommended safe distance back to 1 metre
- a maximum of 100 persons at indoor events such a cultural and sporting events, conferences and religious services, where all attendees are assigned fixed seats
- a maximum of 200 persons at outdoor events, but 3 cohorts of 200 persons each if spectators are assigned fixed seats, typically a football stadium.
As indicated by the Minister of Culture before Easter, next week the Government will also consider allowing outdoor training matches for elite teams. To begin with, this may be relevant to football teams on the two highest league levels. The first week of May, the Government plans to open up for league games for these leagues. Again, this will depend on the infection rates and sound compliance with infection control protocols.
Schools and kindergartens will, at every step of the plan, follow the traffic light model. Any need for tightening of measures will be made by the individual municipality based upon the local situation.
At step 2, the Government will prioritise children, young people, and students. There will also be changes that will mean a lot to all of us. In general, the Government still recommends that events and activities take place outdoors when possible.
The present-day outlook is that given the current development of the epidemic and the progress of the vaccination effort, it will not be possible to initiate the second step of the reopening plan until the last half of May.
Step 2 will include allowing:
- increased access to in-person teaching sessions at universities, university colleges and vocational schools
- a cautious increase from 5 to 10 guests in private homes, because we know that many people have been infected in this very context
- a maximum of 20 persons at private events held at hired public venues
- the serving of alcohol until midnight, no requirement of serving food to guests
- a maximum of 200 persons at indoor events where all attendees are assigned fixed seats
- children and young people to participate in events and organised training sessions taking place in the municipality where they live, with a maximum of 100 person
- a gradual reopening of organised training in recreational sports for groups of maximum 20 adults, both for outdoor and indoor activities. By mid-April, the health authorities will suggest a model for the reopening of recreational sports
- domestic travel
The recommendation to avoid travelling abroad still applies, unless strictly necessary. For travellers entering Norway, strict requirements to undergo entry quarantine and mandatory testing will still apply.
Restrictions will be eased on family visits from abroad, applying both to family members from within the EEA area and family members who are third-country nationals. We will, among other things, consider opening up for visits from romantic partners and grandparents living abroad.
Restrictions will also be eased for prioritised groups of employees who need to travel to and from Norway.
At this time, it is too early to decide which guidelines will apply to the celebration of 17 May – Constitution Day. Towards the end of April, the Government will present further information about advice and recommendations that will apply to the celebration.
As regards guidelines for festivals, concerts and other events planned for the summer, the Government will come back with further information in early May.
At step 3 we may ease restrictions further, both in the private and the public sphere, for example may more people meet each other.
- A maximum of 20 guests will be allowed in private homes. Private events held at hired public venues may have a maximum of 50 guests.
- Special considerations will be made about public events relating to the possible use of rapid tests and corona certificates.
- The cut-off time for serving alcohol will revert to normal, but it will still be required to register guests and for guests to maintain safe distance.
- We will still prefer that as many people as possible work from home.
- For adult recreational sports, we will consider a gradual opening up for league matches and other competitions.
- Children and young people may participate in events and organised training sessions across municipalities.
- Elite athletes may at this stage practice their sports more or less as before restrictions were implemented.
- We will also permit more international travel, though quarantine and testing requirements will still apply. However, these requirements may be changed as of today. We will also consider how corona certificates may be used for travelling abroad.
- Employment immigration will be allowed to a greater degree.
Much of everyday life will be almost back to normal. However, infection control measures will still apply, as will the requirement to keep a safe distance and to stay at home if you are ill or in quarantine. We may still need some of you to work from home. The permitted number of spectators/participants attending big public events and recreational sports and leisure activities will remain limited and continuously assessed.
Restrictions on entry to Norway may still apply, particularly for third-country nationals. Travellers must expect requirements to quarantine upon arrival in Norway and to be tested when arriving from certain areas. The rules for travelling to Norway must also be assessed continuously.
What each step will entail may change based on, for example, new knowledge about how infections spread and the experience we amass in the course of the reopening process. It may become necessary to slow down and move more cautiously ahead. The plan will become increasingly specific the closer we get to reopening.
I understand that many people would like us to present a plan with more specific dates. A reopening plan with fixed dates would create better predictability if it were possible to say with certainty how the pandemic will develop in the time to come. This is not the case. The uncertainty is too great. New mutations may appear, changing the rules of the game again. There is uncertainty about how quickly Norway will receive vaccines and how well vaccines will prevent the spread of infections.
Therefore, I believe that it is not wise to fix the various steps of the plan to any specific dates, but rather to assess the steps continuously in accordance with established criteria.
Even European countries which have plans with fixed dates are clear in their reservations, saying that what will decide the pace of the reopening is the infection situation. The UK motto is “data, not dates”. In Germany reopening is based upon an approach where threshold values for the infection situation determine the progress, as well as any reversal, of the plan.
Despite the many uncertainties, the Government assumes that we will have completed the first three steps of the plan by the end of June unless we experience significant setbacks.
The National Institute for Public Health has conducted various model simulations to demonstrate how the infection may develop under different scenarios. The simulations show that we must be prepared for a certain increase in infections in the course of the autumn. How significant the increase will be, depends on how many people are vaccinated and how well the vaccine works.
The public support of the vaccination programme and the results so far on the effect of the vaccines, give cause for optimism. But new infections may still occur among children, young people, and people, who for various reasons, have declined to be vaccinated. If we need to implement new restrictions, we believe that they will be much less comprehensive than the restrictions we have at present.
Out of the crisis together
Step by step, and little by little, this plan will allow our lives to return to normal. Everyday life will be much as we remember it from before 12 March of last year. It will be a time for joy, expression and freedom.
But this is not necessarily the case for all of us. Some people will struggle longer than others with the consequences of the pandemic. Some of us may suffer health problems after having been ill. Some children have experienced violence at home. Some will have problems catching up at school. Some will suffer mental health issues. Others may have problems getting a job.
The Government’s target is that no one shall have to stand alone in dealing with their challenges caused by the pandemic.
We have faced this together. Our goal now must be to come out of this crisis together, too.
Therefore, the Government will follow up the efforts on these areas in the time going forward. We will assess challenges and identify targeted measures. Much of this work is already underway. More initiatives will come. I will next say a bit more about each of these efforts. I take the opportunity to advise that the Government will come back to this also in the revised national budget.
Recently, the National Institute of Public Health wrote their first review about long-term effects following illness due to COVID-19. The possible effects may include shortness of breath, fatigue or a reduced sense of smell and taste. Last year the Norwegian Directorate of Health published national guidelines for rehabilitation following COVID-19.
Many people will receive satisfactory treatment offered by municipal health care services. In contrast, other people must be seen to by institutions offering special competence and may need comprehensive multidisciplinary medical assessment by specialists. At present, the Norwegian Directorate of Health is about to launch a national plan to rehabilitate patients recovering from COVID-19.
Many people have shared poignant stories. There are ongoing studies in Norway and abroad aiming to amass research-based knowledge about the long-term effects of COVID-19. We want to use this knowledge to establish robust rehabilitation services for people who have suffered from COVID-19, allowing as many people as possible to return to a normal everyday life.
Mental health (including loneliness issues)
Many people have struggled with an increased feeling of loneliness and sadness, and they miss having more contact with others. For the majority, anxious thoughts and feelings of loneliness may pass when life returns more or less to normal. However, we know that for some people, particularly those who are already vulnerable, loneliness may cause more mental problems. The situation we are in right now is particularly demanding for children, young people, and others who do not feel safe at home.
Several initiatives have been taken to reduce the negative impact of the infection control measures: As of May 2020 and up until now, 2.8 billion NOK have been granted for measures aiming to help vulnerable groups. The funding has been used to boost resources at public health clinics, school health services and psychiatric services for children and young people. It has also gone towards maintaining low-threshold services and activity programmes, and for boosting telephone counselling services.
In the time to come, we must consider increasing our efforts. Therefore, the Government has established an expert group whose task is to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and on the issue of substance abuse.
The expert group will submit their report by 30 April, suggesting specific actions to counter the challenges. The Government will use their report as a basis for our efforts to find out how to avoid a situation where mental health issues experienced during the pandemic become lasting problems.
Keeping up at school
This year, the quality of the education offered to many pupils has been somewhat lower than in a normal school year. Though homeschooling has worked well for many pupils, we know that this has not been the case for all. There are also geographical differences in terms of how much of the teaching sessions have been digital.
The Government has granted 500 million NOK to support the municipalities in establishing new or expanding existing summer school programmes for summer 2021. Summer school is aimed at providing children at primary school level extra academic, social and cultural input.
FAFO (the Norwegian Institute for Applied International Studies) has assessed the impact on upper secondary schools (high schools) and found that the dropout rate for the academic year 2019/2020 has not risen. However, we still do not know much about the dropout rate for the present academic year, and it is too early to say anything about any possible long-term consequences for the pupils.
As we start the reopening process, we must implement measures to ensure that pupils who have fallen behind due to the pandemic will get the support and education that they need. We must also ensure that apprentices get a chance to earn their craft certificate.
The Government will extend the grant that supports measures aimed at upper secondary pupils who have been unable to obtain all their grades on their upper secondary education certificate. The grant budget is 150 million NOK in 2021. The Government permits the county municipalities to use the grant for summer school programmes and other courses beyond the counties’ ordinary education programmes.
The stimulus grant for apprentices is extended with 100 million NOK for 2021. Eligible for this grant are apprentices that have been or are at risk of being laid off. The grant shall also go towards establishing more apprenticeships. The grant is especially aimed at supporting trade studies that suffer harsh setbacks due to the pandemic.
The Government has also granted 150 million NOK to support an extended programme for people who do not get an apprenticeship. This initiative is temporarily named “Pupils’ trade certificate” and will be a better programme than the present-day Vg3 programme taught at upper secondary school.
Children and young people have made great sacrifices in the course of this pandemic. We must now extend a hand to those who have fallen behind academically as a consequence of this.
Students at universities, university colleges and vocational schools
For students at universities, university colleges and vocational schools, student life has turned out very different than planned.
Some students struggle with maintaining study progression. Others experience financial hardships because they have lost their part-time job or have problems finding part-time jobs to support their income.
The Government has focused on supporting the students, most recently through a package of measures presented in January. This package includes funding for educational institutions and student unions to employ students to support fellow students academically as well as socially.
The Government wants to support the universities, university colleges and vocational schools in their efforts to give as many students as possible the chance to complete their spring term courses in accordance with standard study progression.
Presently, the Ministry of Education and Research participates in a joint effort with representatives from the educational institutions and the students to identify compensatory measures that may be implemented quickly.
We know that this period has been hard for the students, and we have focused on helping wherever possible. I am happy to see that the total dropout rate has not risen.
Children and young people who have experienced abuse
Violence and abuse against children and young people may be difficult to detect even when there is no pandemic. Children are often reluctant to talk about their experiences. In addition, many adults who suspect that things are not as they should be at a child’s home may find it difficult to ask the child about this.
Some children and young people who are exposed to violence may need treatment for mental health issues. Treatment may be offered either by municipal services or specialist health care services. The Government has strengthened the competence and the capacity of these services, before and in the course of the pandemic. And, as already mentioned, we are considering further initiatives.
The Government is putting a high priority on the effort to combat violence and abuse against children. 2021 is the final year of the Escalation plan against violence and abuse. This year we are boosting the effort with an additional 96 million NOK, leaving the total funding for the entire plan period at approx. 1.1 billion NOK. The work on this plan will continue, and the Government aims at presenting a new action plan to combat domestic violence (violence in close relationships) before summer.
The Ministry of Children and Families and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security are now identifying the challenges related to violence and abuse during the pandemic, and are considering whether there will be a need for new targeted measures to be included in the revised national budget.
Employment and job opportunities
The Corona pandemic has caused the most serious setback to the Norwegian economy in the post-war period, and the impact on the labour market has been severe.
Unemployment rates have dropped significantly since spring last year, but the rates are still markedly higher than before the pandemic. Presently, almost 212,000 persons are registered as job seekers with NAV (The Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration). 115,000 of these are completely unemployed. Many of them are young people. These are people who wish to work. Further, we need for them to work.
Many people who are laid off will probably be able to return to work quickly as soon as the infection situation improves. On the other hand, people who have been completely unemployed for a longer period of time may experience problems getting back to work. Consequently, there is a risk that the pandemic may impact the labour market also in the long-term perspective.
A new salary support scheme will provide businesses with an incentive to allow furloughed employees to return to work more quickly. This will make it possible for employers to prepare for reopening their business despite even though revenues are still down. We may thus avoid that the unemployment rates freeze a high level. The scheme is the result of a joint effort with the employers’ and employees’ organisations.
Employment schemes are pivotal measures to get unemployed citizens back to work. In order to counteract a situation where unemployment rates remain permanently high, the Government has greatly increased the capacity of the employment programmes this year, and NAV is granted extra funds so as to, among other things, be able to provide follow-up services to the long-term unemployed.
People with little or no formal education are particularly vulnerable in the current situation. Consequently, in spring 2020 the Government launched the project “The Education Boost”, which is aimed at improving competence and capacity at all education levels.
For 2021 “The Education Boost” initiative is granted a further 2.8 billion NOK.
This means that “The Education Boost” for 2020 and 2021 will offer approximately 80,000 people the opportunity to get more education and enhance their competence.
These areas, too, will be considered in connection with the revised national budget.
Last year was a tough year. I think we can all agree with His Majesty the King when he addressed the nation before Easter, saying: “This is starting to take its toll”.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is still not over, and we must be prepared for further setbacks.
However, the present situation allows us to start planning for the time after the pandemic.
Doing so, we must bear in mind the following:
For some of us, the pandemic is not over when the restrictions are gone.
For some, the pandemic is over only once they have returned to work, once their health is restored, or once they have caught up at school.
We have been facing this crisis together.
We will come out of this crisis together, too.