Icelandic Parliament “Owes Society” an Updated Constitution, Says Prime Minister

“It is my conviction that Alþingi owes it to society to complete work on constitutional amendments,” Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir wrote in a column published in Fréttablaðið today. Iceland’s Parliament began reviewing the constitution this fall in a cross-party committee, and Katrín has stated it will take at least two terms to complete the work. The revisions have been criticised by activists who point out that the Icelandic nation drafted and voted for a new constitution between 2010 and 2012, which the government never adopted.

Katrín’s column, titled “The opportunity lies with Alþingi,” focuses on the much-debated article concerning ownership of natural resources, which she calls “the fundamental issue that has been most debated in any discussion of constitutional reform.” It is one of the articles that the parliamentary committee has been reviewing this fall term.

Read More: Where is Iceland’s Updated Constitution?

The revisions the government has drafted regarding the utilisation of natural resources reflect those drafted by the Constitutional Committee in 2012 and “address all the principles that have been discussed in recent years,” according to Katrín. “It is stipulated that the utilisation of resources shall be based on sustainable development, which is the first time that this concept has been included in the constitution. It is stipulated that they may not be handed over for possession or permanent use. The granting of authorisations shall be based on laws which shall ensure non-discrimination and transparency. The law shall provide for a fee for the utilisation of resources for profit.”

Activists and supporters of the 2012 constitution, like Gunnhildur Fríða Hallgrímsdóttir, have opposed Parliament’s steps to reform the constitution behind closed doors. “It’s very strange that Parliament is going to make their own revisions to the constitution this fall,” Gunnhildur told Iceland Review in a recent interview. “They forget that the nation is the constitutional authority – all experts in Icelandic law agree on this. Even though we elected them, their opinion on this issue is not valid, because the nation is the constitutional authority.”

Critics of the 2012 constitution have argued that its lofty language may cause legal conundrums or that its sweeping changes could lead to a period of constitutional uncertainty. Activists argue that revisions to the constitution could greatly impact energy exploitation (such as the building of power plants in the highlands) and the fishing quota system.

Two Farms Vacated and Road Closed Due to Mudslides

Mudslide in Eyjafjarðardalur from Hleiðargarðsfjall above Gilsá river

Police have closed part of the road through the Eyjafjarðardalur valley due to repeated mudslides in the wake of a larger mudslide on Oct 6. Two farms and a summerhouse have been vacated due to the danger.

Just before 11 am, Oct 6, a large mudslide occurred in Hleiðargarðsfjall mountain above Gilsá river in Eyjafjarðardalur in North Iceland. It came to a halt not far from the farmhouse at Gilsá II. The mudslide is about 200 m wide, 1700m  long and with a vertical drop of 700 m. According to the Iceland Meteorological office, the cause of the mudslide is not known but is most likely due to unstable surface material aided by precipitation, although rain has not been excessive (20 mm in the last week and just over 70 mm for the past four weeks). Aerial photos indicate that the area where the mudslide originated had been unstable so the precipitation might have been enough to cause the mudslide in the loose surface material. Smaller mudslides have occurred in the area before, and this mudslide is not thought to indicate increased mudslide risk in the area overall.

North-east Iceland Police

Mud is still sliding from Hleiðargarðsfjall mountain above the Gilsá II farm. Mud and rocks have slid past the farmhouse and over the road. Buildings in the area, two farms and a summerhouse were vacated after the first mudslide and will remain empty until the danger has passed. Yesterday, the road was closed as well. Police, as well as experts from the Met Office, continue to assess the situation. While there was still a considerable flow of water through the mudslide yesterday, it had lessened today. The situation will continue to be monitored as the flow of water in the area fluctuates, and the surface material is still unstable.

Before the mudslide, a few M4 earthquakes occurred northeast of Gjögurtá, which were felt in Eyjafjarðardalur. It can’t be ruled out that the earthquakes or the ones in the weeks leading up to the event might have contributed to the mudslides. Mudslides often occur following earthquakes, but usually, that happens after larger quakes and the mudslides usually occur closer to the earthquake’s epicentre. This mudslide is not thought to indicate increased mudslide risk in the area overall.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Chief Epidemiologist Rebuffs Herd Immunity Approach

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

No country in the world is even close to achieving herd immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated in a public briefing this morning. “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination” to see that Iceland’s healthcare system would be “completely overwhelmed” if social restrictions were lifted and the virus had the potential to spread widely, Þórólfur Guðnason stated. After successfully containing the first wave of COVID-19 last spring, Iceland recently reimposed harsh restrictions due to a spike in case numbers. Strain on the National University Hospital is increasing, but it should be able to cope, according to the worst projections for this wave.

Strain on Hospital Increasing

Iceland has reported between 80-100 new cases per day for the last three days and stands at a total of 846 COVID-19 cases. Twenty-three individuals are in hospital and 3 of them in intensive care, all three on ventilators. At today’s briefing, Páll Matthíasson, Director of the National University Hospital, stated that the number was expected to increase, but according to current projections, the hospital should be able to manage the load.

The hospital has undergone reorganising to manage the increased strain caused by the pandemic. Patients with COVID-19 are housed at two locations in the capital area to spread the workload. The most pressing issue is to find beds in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities in order to relocate other patients away from the hospital and free up resources.

Authorities have been hiring from a medical staff reserve force, which currently has 255 specialists registered. Medically trained professionals were urged to sign up to the list.

Solidarity is the Best Defence

At the briefing, both Þórólfur and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson emphasised the importance of solidarity in containing the local pandemic. Asked if he believed current measures would be enough to get case numbers to begin curving downward, Þórólfur stated: “I believe so, if people stick together and follow the rules.” Víðir reviewed recent recommendations issued by the Office of the National Police Commissioner, including staying home as much as possible and cancelling or postponing group gatherings and events over the next two weeks. “We must stand together,” Víðir stated. “It’s the only way out of this.”

Herd Immunity Not a Viable Goal

Reporters questioned the panel on perceived disagreement between MPs regarding restrictions. Víðir and Þórólfur both underlined that although discussion occurs, when decisions are made there is full solidarity within the government and between the government and health authorities.

Asked about the possibility of global herd immunity, Þórólfur stated that all countries were far from achieving it. Even in Sweden, which is often referenced in connection with the concept due to its relaxed approach to managing the pandemic, only around 10% have developed antibodies to the virus.

In Iceland, only 1-2% of the population have antibodies at this time. At least 60% would need to contract SARS-CoV-2 for immunity to develop, and, Þórólfur stated, “it doesn’t take a lot of imagination” to understand how that would lead to the healthcare system being “completely overwhelmed,” considering the strain it is currently experiencing with under 1,000 cases.

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ COVID-19 briefings in English on our Twitter page, below. The next scheduled briefing is on Monday, October 12 at 11.00am UTC.

Two Thirds of Reykjavík Residents Support Pedestrian Streets

pedestrian street Laugavegur Reykjavík

There is growing satisfaction of pedestrian streets among Reykjavík residents, according to a survey commissioned by city authorities last month. Those who use pedestrian streets expressed more support of them than those who did not. The closer residents lived to the pedestrian streets, the more positive they were toward them. Reykjavík has been expanding pedestrian-only areas in the city centre in recent years and there are plans to continue to do so.

A total of 67.2% of Reykjavík residents are positive toward its pedestrian-only zones, compared to 64.5% last year. Of those who visit Reykjavík’s pedestrian streets on a weekly basis, 82% expressed support of the initiative. Those who oppose the initiative decreased from 20.3% in 2019 to 16.1% in 2020. Those who feel pedestrian-only areas should be enlarged increased from 19.3% to 23.6% between years, despite the fact the area was actually enlarged between the two surveys.

There was a big difference in support of the initiative between neighbourhoods. Those in Vesturbær, near downtown, were the most supportive, at 89%, while those in Gravarvogur, much further away, were the least supportive, with 26% having a negative perspective on pedestrian-only streets in the centre. Young people tended to be more supportive of pedestrian streets than older people.

“It’s great to see this positive development,” stated Sigurborg Ósk Haraldsdóttir, chairperson of the City of Reykjavík’s Planning and Transportation Council, “especially in light of all the changes that society has gone through this year.” Sigurborg says city staff worked hard to adapt the city centre to pedestrians this year with plants, increasing the number of oudoor benches and tables, and organising events. “It is clear that the people of Reykjavík want pedestrian streets and we are certainly making an effort to bring them to them.”