Norwegian prime minister hopes to reopen most of country by September

Ahead of presenting a plan for lifting coronavirus restrictions to parliament, Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said that she is hopeful that Norway can get Covid-19 infections under control and offer a vaccine to every adult by the beginning of summer.

Norwegian prime minister hopes to reopen most of country by September
(Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

“If there are no major challenges with vaccine production, our forecasts indicate that we will reach the goal that everyone in the adult population has been offered a vaccine just before or at the beginning of summer,” she told broadcaster TV2.

Solberg added that this target might be missed if unforeseen circumstances occur such as issues with vaccine deliveries. The National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) is expected to publish an updated plan for Norway’s vaccination programme this week.

Norway’s decision to extend its suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine has delayed the programme, but Solberg said that all adults could still be offered a vaccine by summer.

She added that the vaccination program is an important factor in being able to reopen the country. She is expected to present her plan for reopening over Easter and will provide a clearer picture of what to expect.

“I hope we will be able to open up many parts of society before September, but we must have control of infections,” she told the broadcaster.

The PM refused to get drawn into details of when we can expect to see retail, hospitality and nightlife fully reopen.

“As long as we have a pandemic and are not vaccinated well enough, we cannot date different things, “she said.

‘A good sign’: Norway’s health chief says reason to be positive despite surge in infections 

The reproduction rate, or R number, will be key in assessing future developments rather than the number of infections according to Solberg.

“The R-number should be below 1, that is what ensures that the infection does not increase,” she said.

An R-number below 1.0 means that 10 people with the virus will pass it on to fewer than 10 others. As such, the epidemic will recede.

The prime minister added that she also couldn’t promise anything when it comes to concerts, festivals and other large events, which she believes have the potential to be major spreaders of Covid-19.

“We can still experience a large spread of infection, even though many have been vaccinated. If many are together, the potential for a wave of infection will still be there,” she said.

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.