Nursing Homes to Allow Visitors Again in May

Grund Elderly Care Centre.

Starting on May 4, relatives will be able to visit nursing home residents in Iceland, RÚV reports. Strict conditions will apply to all such visits, such as that only one person can visit at a time. Authorities will announce the conditions in full next week.

A working group comprised of representatives from the Welfare Services Association, the Department of Civil Protection, the Directorate of Health, and the Ministry of Health came up with terms dictating the safe reinstatement of family visits.

“[…] This will be a big relief,” said Pétur Magnússon, director of the Welfare Services Association. “As of May 4, the visitation ban will have been in effect for almost 60 days.”

May 4 is the day on which the Icelandic government will begin relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in Iceland in general. Icelandic preschools and elementary schools will return to regular operation; salons, massage parlours, and museums will reopen; and gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed. Swimming pools, gyms, bars, and slot machines will remain closed for the time being.

Ferry to Bring Passengers to Iceland Next Week

The Smyril Line ferry is scheduled to resume transporting passengers to Iceland as of next week, Austurfrétt reports. Twenty-three passengers from the Faroe Islands will be onboard. They will be the first passengers to arrive in Iceland on the ferry in a month.

Smyril Line operates a passenger ferry service between Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland, Tórshvn in the Faroe Islands, and Hirtshals in Denmark. In mid-March, the company elected to pause passenger transport in and out of Iceland in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the closure of Denmark’s borders. Danish borders will remain closed until May 10, but Smyril Line has now opted to resume some passenger transport to and from the Faroes. It has been ten days since COVID-19 was last detected in the Faroes.

While Iceland is currently closed to foreign nationals outside of the Schengen area and flights into the country are been operated at a bare minimum, tourists from countries within Schengen (such as Denmark) can enter the country and are not required to quarantine when they arrive.

Authorities may issue further long-term regulations regarding foreign tourists in Iceland, but as of yet, no new details have been released and Smyril Line says it will just need to wait and see what happens. “When that becomes clear it will be possible to look a bit further than just the spring and summer,” company executives remarked.

Government Sponsors 16 Flights to Bring Icelanders Home

The Ministry of Transport and Local Government has contracted Icelandair to provide a minimal number of flights between Iceland and North America and Europe. Per a press release published on the government’s website on Thursday, flights will be available to Iceland from Boston, London, and Stockholm until May 5.

“International flights play a vital role in the security of the Icelandic nation and these flights are, among other things, necessary to ensure that Icelandic citizens who are located abroad can find their way home,” reads the statement.

All total, 16 roundtrip flights (32 legs) are planned to/from the three destinations. The flight plan is subject to change, but is currently as follows:

Boston (Logan International – BOS) April 16, 18, 23, 25, 30; May 2

London (Heathrow – LHR) April 19, 22, 24, 26, 29; May 1 and 3

Stockholm (Arlanda – ARN) April 18 and 25; May 2

The Icelandic government will pay Icelandair a max of ISK 100 million [€639,624; $692,233] to fund the company’s extended operations, although that amount may be offset by revenue that the company generates from the offered flights.

Typically, the government would accept bids from contractors for providing a public service of this nature, but under emergency circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, law allows the government to contract directly with a service provider.

Government Introduces Student Debt Relief Measures, Effective Immediately

Prime minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir introduces student loan relief.

The government is taking measures to relieve financial pressure on people repaying student loans. The new measures, effective immediately, will decrease interest on all current student loans, increase borrowers’ disposable income, and eliminate guarantor liability for as many as 30,000 defaulted student loans.

Per the terms of the bill, student loan interest rates are reduced from 1% to .4%. A discount of up to 15% will be applied to the borrowers’ loan principal upon repayment. And lastly, guarantor liability on loans that are in default will be cancelled; about 30,000 loans would qualify.

‘This has been a heavy burden’

The measures were announced in a video conference with Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Education Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson.

“Graduated students make student loan payments amounting to three to four weeks of their yearly disposable income,” remarked Katrín. “This has been a heavy burden on those who are taking their first steps into the labour market, having children, and getting a roof over their head after the end of their studies.”

The measures also ensure that “the same conditions apply for all people who take loans with LÍN [the Icelandic Student Loan Fund],” noted Bjarni. This is to say that guarantors will not be held responsible for student loans in default. The guarantor system was eliminated for all new student loans in 2009, but guarantors on loans that were taken out prior to that were still being held accountable. This will no longer be the case.

Borrowers’ September income-based loan payments will be lower, continued Bjarni. Childless individuals earning up to ISK 700,000 a month will pay ISK 25,000 less on their income-based loan instalment. Families earning up to a combined ISK 1.4 million where both adults have student loans will pay ISK 50,000 less on their income-based instalment in September. This will impact 45,000 payers.

Measures ‘will benefit all borrowers’

Per a press release published on the government’s website on Wednesday, the measures “will benefit all borrowers, both those who work in the public and the private sectors” and “represent a fundamental change for the better to the student loan system.” They were the combined effort of a working group comprised of representatives from three government ministries, the Icelandic Confederation of University Graduates (BHM), and trade unions and are intended to facilitate wage negotiations within the labour market, as well as meet BHM halfway on their demands. “[The measures] ensure that borrowers benefit from the strong position of Icelandic Student Loan Fund, which has, in recent years, substantially increased its equity due to good [loan] recovery and reduced demand for student loans,” Lilja Alfreðsdóttir remarked.

The measures are being taken alongside those that have been proposed in a bill introduced to parliament in November—the third parliamentary bill introduced in the last seven years which attempts to revamp the terms of the nearly 30-year-old law governing LÍN. Neither of the prior bills were approved by parliament. Among the proposals in the current bill is that the name of the student loan fund be changed from LÍN to SÍN (the Icelandic Student Support Fund). Moreover, it would reward students who complete their degrees within a specified period of time with a 30% reduction of their loan principal.