The measures Norway put in place on March 12 have had an undeniable impact on the number of people hospitalised with coronavirus, with 316 patients in hospital on Monday, down from 325 at the peak on Wednesday.
The government will now on Tuesday decide on what restrictions to lift after the Easter break to bring the country slowly back to something close to normal. But can schools and kindergartens open again without triggering a sudden surge in infections? What other restrictions can safely be lifted?
According to a report from the Norwegian news site Filter, the National Institute of Public Health on Friday submitted a report to the government estimating that the reproduction rate for coronavirus in Norway had fallen from 2.4 to “below 1” as a result of the restrictions. This situation is what the authorities had described as the “suppression” scenario, or “knocking down the virus”.
“It's clear that the intervention that we've done in the middle of March had a big effect, that's completely clear,” Arnoldo Frigessi, Professor at Oslo University's Centre for Global Health, told The Local. “But what has been done has been just to put a brake on the epidemic, not to stop it.”
This means the government is now in an unenviable situation. Every restriction it loosens is likely to lead to a increase in the number of infections. But as coronavirus is so new and and there is so little data available, it is impossible to predict with any confidence just how big an increase that might be.
“The prediction models have big uncertainties, because we have to fix many parameters instead of operating from data, because this data doesn't exist yet,” Frigessi explained.
“Everything which makes social contact easier will have an effect on the famous reproductive rate, and make the epidemic increase again,” he said. “But how much, that's another question. If you ask me how much it will go up if you open schools, then I have no answer. But it will go up.”
If Norway relaxes its regime close to that of neighbouring Sweden, where schools, kindergartens, bars and restaurants still remain open, it risks slowly moving towards the point where it sees similar levels of coronavirus patients in its hospitals as Sweden now has.
“The question is whether your hospitals and your ICUs (intensive care units) are so many and so well-equipped that you can take the peak that comes,” Frigessi said.
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Frigessi suggested that a move towards more basic social distancing policies might be enough to keep the level of patients manageable.
“Keeping a two-metre distance, washing your hands, and maybe working from home as much as possible: Is this enough to keep social distancing at a level which allows you to control the peaks? This is unclear.”
Norway's prime minister Erna Solberg, in an interview with VG newspaper on Friday, warned Norwegians not to expect such a return to almost normal.
When schools and kindergartens start to reopen, she suggested, there might be staggered classes, or different groups of students attending on different days, to limit the risk of infection.
Frigessi said similar restrictions might also be applicable to factories, offices, shops, and public services, allowing them to open to some extent but not to operate as normal.
“These are the things that can be controlled to some extent,” he said. But of course there can be no concerts this summer.”
Rock concerts, parades, and crowded bars, it seems, will be absent from Norway for some months to come.
“If we went back to where we were on the first of March, then in three or four weeks, it would be up again.”