Norway relaxes Covid-19 restrictions but keeps face mask rules

Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre on Tuesday announced an easing of the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.

Norway's Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced a relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on February 1st.
Norway's Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced a relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on February 1st.File photo: Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP

“Today we have finally reached the point at which we can remove many of the anti-infection measures we have lived with this winter,” Støre told a press briefing.

Norway’s high vaccination rate and the milder Omicron variant enabled the country to ease off on restrictions, the prime minister said. 

The change in rules will mean bars and restaurants will again be allowed to serve alcohol after 11pm. A rule requiring table service for alcohol to be sold is also scrapped, but licensed business must still operate under anti-infection provisions.

A recommended limit on the number of people who can gather in private homes is meanwhile removed. Under the outgoing rules, no more than 10 people were advised to gather privately. Outdoor and indoor events will not have capacity limits.

Amusement parks, arcades and similar attractions can reopen but with anti-infection provisions in place (such as regular cleaning and sanitisation). Cinemas, theatres, churches and anywhere else that uses fixed seating for guests can now use their full capacity, with distance requirements for seated persons revoked.

The national recommendation for schools and kindergartens to operate at yellow level, meaning reduced class sizes and social distancing, is lifted, while universities and further education are advised that all students can again be physically present at classes without social distancing.

The self-isolation period following a positive Covid-19 test will be reduced to four days, Støre also confirmed at the briefing. Up to now, the isolation period was six days for people without symptoms of the virus.

A requirement to work from home where possible will also be scrapped. Instead, employers will be asked to assess how much home working is appropriate for individual workplaces. The home working requirement had been in place since December.

Travellers to Norway will no longer be required to take a Covid-19 test on arrival in the country. Previously, all persons arriving in Norway were required to take a Covid-19 test regardless of vaccination status.

The changes come into force with near-immediate effect from 11pm on Tuesday.

Some of the current rules are to remain in place, including a mandate on face mask use in stores, on public transport and at other locations when it is not possible to maintain a social distance of one metre.

Nightclubs will be allowed to open but will still be impacted by restrictions. The government said it will keep recommendations against dancing at nightclubs and ask the one-metre social distance to be kept at the establishments.

“Licensed establishments should not conduct activities which naturally promote a distance of less than one metre between guests, for example dancing,” updated guidelines released by the government state.

Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said at the briefing that the government had gone further than health authorities had recommended in easing restrictions.

“In short, we are going from detailed rules to the meter [social distance, ed.], face mask and common sense,” Kjerkol said.

“We know this will have a price in the form of (increased) infections and sick leave (from work), but the price of restrictions is actually higher,” the minister said.

The remaining restrictions could be lifted as early as February 17th if the situation with the virus develops as expected, the government also said at the briefing. Municipalities will still be allowed to introduce local restrictions if they deem this necessary, however.

READ ALSO: Norwegian health authority changes guidelines for home Covid-19 tests

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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.