Speech/statement | Date: 09/03/2021
Prime Minister Erna Solberg's address to the Storting on the COVID-19 situation, 9 March 2021.
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to brief the Storting on the status and handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The infection situation
Nearly a year has gone by since we introduced the most comprehensive set of measures ever implemented in peacetime. During the course of this year, more than 4 million tests have been carried out, 75 000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, 3 400 people have been admitted to hospital and 632 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded. The virus has affected the lives of many people, and the fight to limit the spread of infection has affected even more. But Norway has fared better than most other countries.
Since we succeeded in reducing the spread of infection late last winter, we have managed to keep the virus under control, also through various new waves of infection.
But the pandemic is unpredictable. At the beginning of January, we tightened restrictions, both at Norway’s borders and within the country. This proved effective, and infection levels declined during the month of January. It also probably helped to delay the spread in Norway of the more infectious virus variants that were on the increase in other countries.
In the past few weeks, the numbers have been rising again, and the more infectious variants are in the process of becoming predominant. The R number is now estimated to be 1.3. That is too high.
There have been a variety of outbreaks in different parts of the country, for example in Ulvik, Bodø, Harstad, Kristiansand and Oslo.
There have been outbreaks in hospitals, via sports activities, in workplaces, schools and day-care centres. Most of the recent outbreaks have been caused by a more infectious virus variant.
While infection levels have increased in 8 out of 10 counties, a large proportion of the new cases are emerging in just a few counties. In recent weeks, around 70 % of all cases have been registered in Oslo and Viken. It is estimated that the UK variant of the virus accounts for around 70 % of the cases in these areas.
This variant is more easily transmissible, and is likely to carry a higher risk of serious illness and therefore lead to more hospital admissions. At the same time, we know that we have vaccines that provide protection against the mutated virus too. And we know that is possible to suppress it with tried and tested measures.
Infection levels have risen in all age groups. But now the numbers are highest among the younger age groups, with the sharpest increase among those aged 13 to 19, followed by those aged 20 to 39. It is not surprising that cases are rising most rapidly among young people, as it is the restrictions for these groups that have been eased the most.
Fortunately, another number is also rising, and that is the number of people who have been vaccinated. Over 600 000 doses of the vaccine have been administered. And although it is reassuring to know that the oldest among us are now well protected by the vaccine, there are still too many people who could become seriously ill with COVID-19 if we do not continue efforts to limit the spread of infection.
People in the younger age groups can become seriously ill too. And it is not always easy to know whether another person has an underlying disease.
The increase in infection levels has led to a rise in the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital. We are now back up to the level we were seeing in January. Hospitals in and around Oslo have seen the largest increase in new patients.
Infection levels are rising in many other countries as well. Several of these are now introducing stringent measures to prevent an escalating third wave of coronavirus.
The increasing predominance of new variants of the virus is making it more difficult to keep the spread of infection under control. It has therefore been necessary to introduce tighter restrictions in many municipalities. We have seen that many municipalities have managed to suppress outbreaks of the mutated virus. But the situation is unstable.
It is essential that we manage to keep the spread of infection under control.
If we succeed in keeping infection levels down in March and April, we will be able to start to ease restrictions in May.
There is still another uphill battle ahead.
Division of tasks and responsibilities between the local and state levels
The state and the municipalities have different tasks and responsibilities when it comes to preventing and managing the spread of infection. Under the Act relating to the control of communicable diseases, both the municipalities and the Government have the authority to introduce infection control measures that are necessary and proportionate in order to combat the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic we have had national measures in place, including requirements relating to enterprises and limits on how many people can congregate in one place. The national measures have set a minimum level for restrictions across the country. No municipality may have a lower level of restrictions. As we work to suppress the more infectious mutated variants, it is important that all municipalities support, and ensure adequate compliance with, the national measures.
But municipalities may have a higher level of restrictions. When dealing with local outbreaks, tighter local restrictions are often needed. The basic principle has been that the municipalities themselves are to take the decision to implement stricter local measures. The Government may also introduce measures that apply to parts of the country, when this is necessary to manage the situation. This may be called for in the event of major outbreaks when there is a need to coordinate the response quickly across multiple municipalities.
When outbreaks occur, county governors, the affected municipalities, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the Norwegian Directorate of Health work together to assess what measures are needed. They also consider who should decide on any local measures: the individual municipalities themselves or the Government.
The first time the Government took the decision to impose stricter local and regional measures was in January in connection with the outbreak in Nordre Follo municipality. Since then, the Government has also adopted measures to be implemented in a number of other municipalities, for example in Western Norway and in Vestfold og Telemark county.
The national measures imposed by the Government have been replaced by municipal rules once the infection situation has been clarified. So far, all municipalities have agreed, and indeed have themselves requested, that it should be the Government that introduces and adjusts measures when this is necessary to manage the situation.
The Government has developed a three-level system of measures, set out in the COVID-19 regulations, that can be deployed very rapidly if and when the need arises. Level A encompasses the strictest level of measures, and level C the least stringent.
We listened to the feedback we received that the first version of the system was too complicated, and we have now simplified and improved the system.
Measures at the regional level have proved to be a good approach. Cooperation with the affected municipalities, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the Norwegian Directorate of Health and the county governors has been very constructive.
In line with advice from the Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health, the Government has decided it is best to allow the locally adopted measures to be in effect for a few days before we draw any final conclusions about whether these measures are enough to bring infection levels down.
Local measures are well targeted and enjoy a high degree of credibility at local level.
But it is essential that they are sufficiently restrictive, that they are well coordinated and that they suppress outbreaks quickly enough.
There are two aspects of the local response that the Government is seeking improve.
In some cases, municipalities have taken too long to implement adequate restrictions and coordinate their efforts.
The Institute of Public Health has therefore clarified its guidelines to the municipalities on how to implement measures swiftly, coordinate the response and ensure the appropriate level of restrictions. The emergency authority granted to the Chief Municipal Medical Officer to implement necessary measures is of crucial importance in such situations.
It means that the necessary measures can be implemented quickly by the Chief Municipal Medical Officer, ideally coordinated with the efforts of colleagues in neighbouring municipalities. At the same time, it gives the municipality’s democratically elected representatives time to determine the longer-term level of restrictions needed.
This prevents the loss of valuable time.
The work of testing and tracing infections can be done before the infection has had time to spread. In this way, the virus can be suppressed effectively without the need for long-term restrictions.
This must be the main model for the local response as we move forward.
The second aspect the Government will focus on is lowering the threshold for when the Government should step in and take decisions about the level of restrictions on behalf of the municipalities. This will apply when:
- the degree of urgency makes a swift and coordinated response necessary, or if decision-making processes at municipal level are taking too long;
- municipalities in the same region that have a similar infection situation want to implement different measures;
- there are doubts about whether the level of restrictions in a particular area is sufficient to suppress the outbreak;
- this is made necessary by other national considerations, for example capacity in the specialist health service.
It may also be appropriate for the Government to implement regional measures if the number of new cases continues to rise in parts of the country where infection levels are already high.
The municipalities will always have the opportunity to decide on measures first. That is what the Government wants as well. In situations where it is necessary for the Government to intervene, there will be a dialogue with the municipality in question and the aim will always be to hand responsibility back to the municipality as soon as the situation makes this possible.
We are announcing this now because it is essential that local measures are effective if we are to avoid a new round of national restrictions.
The Government’s long-term strategy explains the choice of goals and measures in the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Norway. We also have an emergency preparedness plan that provides overall guidelines for assessing and taking decisions on measures at national, regional and local level. These form the basis for our assessment of the measures needed, which helps to ensure a degree of predictability, even in situations where the infection situation is highly unpredictable.
It is vital that we reduce the spread of infection. If we allow the R number to remain at 1.3, we could quickly lose control of the situation. Calculations by the Directorate of Health indicate that if the infection continues to spread at the current rate, by the end of May, in 75 days, we could have 50 times as many daily cases as we have now. Long before we get that far, the municipal infection tracing systems will have collapsed, and hospitals will be hard-pressed to provide medical care to all those who need it.
The Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health have advised us to monitor the situation from day to day over the next couple of weeks to see if the relatively strict national measures kept in place since January, combined with tighter local restrictions in areas where infection levels are high, are enough to bring the numbers down again.
If they are not, the Government is ready to introduce tighter national restrictions at short notice. In order to prepare the country for this, we have asked the Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health to propose what these should be.
The proposed measures are:
- A recommendation that people should maintain a distance of two metres to others, and not one metre as is currently recommended.
- A recommendation that people should limit personal contacts to a maximum of 10 per week.
- The number of people who can attend events will change.
- For indoor events where there are fixed, allocated seats, the number will be limited to 20 people. For funerals, the maximum will be 50 people. The same maximum of 50 will apply for events for people under 20 who are all from the same municipality.
- For outdoor events, the maximum will be 50 people.
- A ban on indoor, organised sports and leisure activities for adults will be introduced. This will not apply to professional athletes.
- Fitness centres and swimming pools will be closed, but will remain open for swimming practice and rehabilitation activities. Amusement parks and bingo halls will also be closed.
- A nationwide ban on serving alcohol will be introduced.
- It will also be made a statutory requirement for employers to ensure that employees work from home as far as is practicable.
If these measures are still not enough to suppress the spread of the new virus variants, the Government will consider reintroducing the recommendations that were in place in January, including the recommendation not to visit other people in their homes for a two-week period, to postpone all events, to maintain the red level in the traffic light model for secondary and upper secondary schools, and to provide online tuition at universities, university colleges and vocational technical colleges.
Although we are not introducing new national measures today, I would like to remind you all of the recommendations currently in place. Everyone across the country must limit social contact. If you meet someone outside your household, you should do so outdoors. Do not travel abroad. Non-essential travel within Norway should be avoided. Anyone who is able to should work from home. Events that bring together people from more than one municipality should be cancelled or postponed.
If everyone follows these recommendations, this should be enough to keep the infection levels down. We also recommend that people who are infected and do not have an appropriate place to self-isolate should contact the municipality. A hotel could be a good option in such cases.
The Government will announce specific recommendations for the Easter break in due course. How strict these will be will depend on how the infection situation develops over the next days and weeks.
But already now, we would like to urge Norwegians living abroad not to come home for Easter this year. This also applies to students.
We also urge Norwegians and people living in Norway not to travel abroad at Easter. Anyone who chooses to do so should be aware that the Government is now considering extending the hotel quarantine scheme to new groups. This means that if you take a holiday trip abroad now, you will probably have to undergo quarantine at a hotel on your return.
The Government’s advice to avoid non-essential travel to all countries currently applies until 15 April.
We will also consider making it a statutory requirement that all people must have a separate bedroom and bathroom while undergoing quarantine, and that it must be possible to keep two metres away from other members of the household. This means that fines may be imposed if a place of quarantine does not comply with the designated requirements.
We also recommend that universities and university colleges plan to have online tuition the first week after Easter.
Infection levels rising among children and young people
The Government is giving priority to children and young people. This means that we will do all we can to minimise the impact of measures on children and young people. Our aim is to ensure that children experience as normal a day in school and at day-care as possible. At the same time, we must ensure that infection control measures are adapted to combat the new variants of the virus. This is no easy task, but it is necessary all the same.
Limiting restrictive measures in order to minimise the impact on children and young people also has negative consequences. There have been more confirmed cases among children and young people recently, and many outbreaks in schools and day-care centres. This is worrying. The rise in infection levels among children and young people means that we have to introduce tighter restrictions that also affect others. But in the Government’s view, it is the right approach to protect children and young people from the impacts of the restrictions as far as possible.
In Norway, unlike in many other countries, we have largely managed to keep schools and day-care centres open since spring last year. We have managed to do so partly because we have established a multi-level system of measures for schools and day-care centres.
We have received feedback from many schools and day-care centres requesting that these guidelines are updated now in light of the emergence of the new variants of the virus in Norway.
We have also received indications that there has been varying compliance with the measures that are currently in place and that the current measures pose certain practical challenges. In some areas, for example in Oslo, schools have had to revert to the red level in the traffic light model after a very short space of time. There is therefore good reason to review whether the model in place is adapted well enough to the new more infectious strains of the virus and the actual situation in schools and day-care centres.
We are now are taking a number of steps to ensure both adequate infection control and maximum attendance in schools and day-care centres. To achieve this, we must work together with the local authorities. We must involve the local authorities in what we are doing.
First, we have tasked the national Directorate of Health, Institute of Public Health and Directorate for Education and Training with reviewing the infection control guidelines. This work has already begun, and is being carried out in consultation with municipalities and relevant stakeholders.
Second, this week we will send letters to municipalities, counties and other day-care centre and school owners regarding measures designed to enable children and young people to be physically at school more often.
Third, we are repeating our assurance that municipalities will receive compensation for additional costs associated with infection control and with any measures they implement to ensure compliance with infection control rules and enable as many pupils as possible to receive tuition in the classroom. We also emphasise that it is the responsibility of the municipalities to ensure that funds reach the individual schools and day-care centres, in order to safeguard the situation of pupils and staff alike.
With good guidelines and a well-defined multi-level system of restrictions in place, we can improve infection control and at the same time ensure maximum attendance in schools and day-care centres while limiting the impacts of restrictive measures on children and young people.
Extension of entry restrictions, the safety valve/daily commuters from Sweden
Restrictions on entry to Norway have been an important part of the Government’s response to the pandemic since March 2020. Norway is one of the countries in Europe that has maintained the strictest entry restrictions and quarantine rules throughout the pandemic.
When the UK announced the discovery of a mutated variant of the virus, the Government quickly introduced special rules on entry and testing for people arriving in Norway from there. In addition, at the end of January, the Government also significantly tightened entry rules for foreign nationals.
Now, as a general rule, only foreign nationals who are resident in Norway are permitted to enter the country. However, there are exemptions in place for certain groups who are regarded as having particularly close ties to Norway or whose purpose for visiting Norway is especially important, such as non-Norwegians who have close family members here or who are key workers or transport sector workers, and health personnel who are coming to Norway from Sweden and Finland.
The duration and specific details of the entry restrictions are assessed on an ongoing basis in line with developments in the COVID-19 situation, and are considered against alternative, less stringent measures. It is important to ensure that the restrictions do not remain in place longer than is necessary.
The strict entry rules that were introduced on 29 January were required in order to reduce the risk of infections being brought into Norway from abroad. These restrictions have been effective in limiting the number of imported infections. The number is now low, but infection levels in Norway are still rising.
At the same time, the restrictions have created a very difficult situation for people who work in Norway but live in other countries. They have not been able to go to work and have therefore lost their incomes.
As of Monday 1 March, we have eased the restrictions somewhat by allowing daily commuters from Sweden and Finland to travel to work in Norway again, under a strict testing and control regime.
However, the ban on entry to Norway continues to affect many people, and now it appears that these entry restrictions will remain in place for some time. Many of these people are entitled to benefits under the National Insurance Scheme. In the light of this, the Government is proposing the establishment of a new scheme to provide income security for those who are affected.
The Government is proposing a new compensation scheme based on the existing sickness benefit scheme. This will make it possible to put the scheme in place relatively quickly. The benefit will cover 70 % of the income of those who are eligible (that is the income calculated by NAV as a basis for paying sickness benefits), which is about the same level of compensation the workers would receive if they were temporarily laid off and covered by the furlough rules.
Under the Government’s proposal, the employer would be responsible for disbursing the benefit and for obtaining a refund of the full amount from NAV afterwards. The new scheme is to be effective from 29 January when the ban on entry to Norway was introduced and will last as long as the strict entry rules continue to apply to workers.
The Government will soon present more details about the scheme and its proposed legal basis to the Storting.
The entry restrictions have major consequences for Norwegian enterprises that are dependent on foreign workers, and thus may affect the development of the Norwegian economy. These impacts are likely to be more significant if the entry restrictions remain in place for a long time.
On 20 February, the Government therefore introduced an application-based scheme under which companies may seek permission to enter Norway for essential foreign workers not already covered by one of the other exemptions. The scheme will not make it possible for businesses to meet all their needs for regular labour. The risks involved in allowing too many people to enter the country are too great.
In the first instance, the scheme will apply to a limited group of workers who are considered essential to maintain business operations. These are workers with technical skills who carry out tasks relating to the operation of machinery and technical equipment and who are employed by, or under contract to, the company that submits the application.
The scheme is administered by the Norwegian Maritime Authority, and we greatly appreciate their willingness to take on this entirely new task.
As of 5 March, just over 1 000 applications had been processed under the scheme, and around 500 workers have been granted permission to enter Norway.
The Government is now considering expanding the scheme to encompass other groups of workers, following a comprehensive assessment of the infection situation and the business sector’s needs.
The Government’s main priority when it comes to the vaccination programme is to vaccinate the entire population quickly. Because of the limited availability of vaccines in the initial phase, we have given priority to residents of nursing homes and the most elderly people, who are at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19.
It is incorrect to say that Norway is lagging behind other European countries when it comes to vaccination. As you know, we are participating in the EU joint vaccines strategy, and we are allocated doses according to the same distribution key as other European countries.
Right now, the figures show that Norway is one of the countries in Europe that has administered the most vaccines based on the number of allocated doses. People in the 75-84 age group and health personnel are now being vaccinated. We have administered over 600 000 doses.
The Institute of Public Health has recommended a modest geographical redistribution of vaccines to the City of Oslo, and the municipalities of Fredrikstad, Sarpsborg, Moss and Lørenskog. Oslo is to give priority to the districts of Stovner, Alna, Grorud, Bjerke, Søndre Nordstrand and Gamle Oslo which have seen the highest rates of infection over an extended period of time.
A number of additional changes are being made that will have a far greater impact on the distribution and speed of the vaccine rollout in the municipalities. Firstly, the Institute of Public Health has now decided that the vaccines will be distributed according to the number of people in a municipality over 18 years of age, rather than on the basis of the number of inhabitants over the age of 65, as has been the case until now. This means that municipalities with younger populations will receive more vaccines.
Secondly, the AstraZeneca vaccine will now also be recommended for people over 65. This decision has been taken on the basis of new information about its efficacy. It means that many people in the top priority groups can be vaccinated two to five weeks earlier than anticipated.
Based on input from the Institute of Public Health, the Government has decided that the interval between the first and second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be extended from three to six weeks. The Institute will reach a final conclusion on the matter shortly. It will also consider whether the interval can be extended beyond six weeks. This would make it possible to give more people the first dose earlier.
What is most important is that vaccines are now becoming more widely available. We are currently receiving around 100 000 vaccine doses a week. We expect to be receiving twice this amount by the end of March. And the size of the shipments will increase further in April, May and June.
We therefore expect to see a significant rise in the number of vaccines administered over the next few months. This is cause for hope. It is likely that new vaccines will be coming too.
The Norwegian Medicines Agency started the approval process for the CureVac and Novavax vaccines in February. The Janssen vaccine could be approved on 11 March. This is a single-dose vaccine that will help to further accelerate the pace of the vaccine rollout.
At present, we are expecting all adults to have been offered a vaccine by or in the course of the summer.
A few European countries are impatient and are unilaterally seeking to obtain more vaccines that can provide protection against new variants of the virus now and in the time ahead. All the approved vaccines that are currently available are being used and it is therefore not possible to obtain more doses at short notice.
Norway is working with other countries to build preparedness in the event that existing vaccines cease to be effective against new strains of the virus. That is why we are now entering into agreements with the EU on future deliveries of vaccines that can be adapted to combat new mutations. We have also provided NOK 200 million in funding to support the efforts of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop vaccines against future mutations of the virus.
Since March last year, we have made it clear that we will keep financial measures in place for as long as we have infection control measures, and that these will be adapted to the infection situation and the level of restrictions. Just two weeks ago, the Storting discussed proposals from the Government to extend and adjust a number of the support schemes established in response to the pandemic. The proposals were put forward against the backdrop of rising infection levels and uncertainty about how the situation will unfold.
Our companies can be secure in the knowledge that, as long as they have been directly or indirectly required by us to close down activities, we will have schemes in place to compensate them and prevent unnecessary bankruptcies.
A comprehensive set of financial measures has been put in place to support the business sector. The broad-based compensation scheme for the business sector has been extended until the end of June. So far, nearly NOK 9 billion has been provided through this scheme to around 34 000 companies. Over NOK 11 billion has been disbursed, primarily to small and medium-sized enterprises, under the loan guarantee scheme
A scheme has also been established that enables municipalities to provide support adapted to local needs, for example to hard-hit businesses in the tourism sector or restaurants. NOK 1.8 billion has now been allocated to this scheme.
A number of the financial COVID-19 measures have been designed in such a way that the amount of support automatically increases when activity in the economy declines. If the situation deteriorates over the next weeks and months, support to the businesses that are affected will therefore increase.
On Friday, we presented a proposal for a new salary support scheme, in response to a request made by the Storting. The scheme has been developed in cooperation with the other social partners. It is also in line with the Government’s COVID-19 exit strategy – produce more and include more people in working life.
Under the scheme, support will be provided to businesses that have been affected by restrictions for a long time and have had to temporarily lay off staff, those that have seen a dramatic drop in turnover and will need time to get their operations up and running again.
The scheme will make it possible for companies to bring back furloughed employees to prepare to resume activities, even though revenues are still down. In this way, companies will be ready to deliver their goods and services as soon as their customers return. For some businesses, this may provide a good opportunity to bring back furloughed staff for training and development purposes pending an increase in activities.
Overall, we have in place a comprehensive package of financial measures that provides support to a wide range of businesses. The Government will do all it can to enable us to come out of the crisis in as strong a position as possible. As we near the end of the pandemic, we will need to turn our attention towards promoting activity and restructuring. Then, the most important steps we can take to support growth in the private sector will be to reopen society and discontinue the public support schemes. The Government will present a renewed assessment of the details of the financial measures in connection with the revised national budget for 2021.
The way forward – at the end of March, we will present a plan for the period leading up to summer
In the time ahead, we must be prepared for both good news and bad news as a result of uncertainty surrounding the delivery of vaccines and the spread of new strains of coronavirus. Our overall response and the set of measures used at local, regional and national levels will have to be adjusted on an ongoing basis depending on how the pandemic develops in Norway.
In this work, the Government will give priority first to children and young people, and then to safeguarding jobs. If we manage to keep the R number below 1 in March and April, we will be able to take the first steps towards a return to normality in May.
Basic recommendations such as keeping your hands clean, staying at home if you are ill, keeping your distance from other people, and quarantine and self-isolation rules will probably have to remain in place for a long time.
All measures will have to be adapted and considered on the basis of an overall assessment of their positive and negative impacts. Infection control measures must be balanced and sufficiently stringent to have the required effect, but they must not be more restrictive on people or enterprises than is necessary, nor should they remain in place any longer than they are needed.
Achieving this will become even more important as the pandemic nears its end. If possible, measures should be local rather than national, and the burden of the measures should be as low as possible. At the same time, it is vital that we manage to keep the pandemic under control in Norway.
The Directorate of Health and the Institute of Public Health are working on a plan for a gradual reduction of the restrictions. The Government will return to this issue in the second half of March.
I requested the opportunity to hold this address because I wanted to update Storting on the status quo.
The situation is uncertain. Over the past few weeks, we have seen a surge in cases of the mutated virus and an increase in hospital admissions. This is a serious development.
It is clear that we have another uphill climb ahead.
But if we can scale this peak too, our goal of a return to normality will be within reach.
If we manage to keep the spread of infection under control in March and April, we will be able to start opening up again in May.
Many municipalities have now introduced strict local measures. We do not know yet what the effect of these will be.
That is why it is too early to impose stricter national measures now.
Instead, we are further strengthening the framework for local measures.
Our aim is to suppress local outbreaks more quickly and more decisively.
If we succeed, there will be no need for new national measures.
If we do not succeed, we will have to tighten the restrictions swiftly. I have outlined the measures that will be introduced in that case, and I ask everyone in the country to be prepared for this.
Whether we end up needing local or national measures, I am asking everyone today to make this final push.
To climb this hill together.
In the hope that this is truly the last one and that this time we will finally reach the top.