COVID-19 in Iceland: Clear Regulations Combat Pandemic Fatigue

COVID-19 Iceland

Clear and open communications between authorities and the public, but also between individuals, were the main topics of today’s information briefing on COVID-19 in Iceland. The panel today included Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, and Director of Health Alma Möller. It also included a special guest: Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir, an expert from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Positive numbers but still to early to declare victory

Yesterday, 33 people tested positive for the coronavirus domestically, 61% of which were already in quarantine. In total there are 1,159 active cases of the virus, 21 people are in hospital and three in the ICU. The total number and number of hospitalised continues to fall, as does the daily number of new cases. “The curve continues downwards. All figures suggest we are seeing a decrease in infections,” Þórólfur stated. “Iceland is one of just 4 countries in Europe where the incidence rate has been dropping in recent days, it is rising in the remaining countries. It is, however, still too early to declare victory,” the Chief Epidemiologist adds.

Increased cases at the border indicate rise of pandemic across Europe

While domestic numbers are going down, an unusually high number of people have tested positive at the border, most of them arriving from Poland. Þórólfur stated that this likely was a representation of infection numbers going up in Poland but in his mind, this also underlined the importance of border testing. Authorities are looking into if changes should be made to the border testing, perhaps making it a requirement from people coming from certain countries. Currently, people arriving in Iceland have a choice between double testing and 5-day quarantine or 14-day quarantine.

Clear guidelines necessary, vow to do better

Þórólfur also addressed the confusion arising last week over gyms being allowed to reopen last week, albeit with heavy restrictions. He lamented the confusion and unrest the matter caused but explained that after he had suggested the gyms remain closed but allowing non-contact sports with restrictions, the Ministry of Health found a legal flaw that didn’t allow them to issue such regulations. Ultimately, he agreed with their reasoning. He reiterated that issuing regulations that fit everyone perfectly was a task doomed to failure but stressed that the main thing people should keep in mind are personal preventative measures such as handwashing, social distance and disinfecting common surfaces. “Both I and the Ministry of Health will learn from this and aim to ensure regulations are clear in the future,” the Chief Epidemiologist added.

Icelandic public more satisfied with government response

Some of the key factors to prevent pandemic fatigue are clear regulations and easy access to information on how and why decisions are made, Director of Health Alma Möller stated. Statistics from the University of Iceland show that the public in Iceland is more satisfied with government response than the public in many other countries. “Still, recent events show that we can and must do better,” she added.

Take care of yourself, then support others

Ingibjörg Lilja Ómarsdóttir from the Department of Civil Protection discussed perseverance in the face of the pandemic, the importance of support from a social network, and how people need to take care of themselves in order to be able to support the people around them. “Living on a volcanic island regularly tests our perseverance, but now we’re dealing with heavy restrictions on our daily lives,” says Ingibjörg. “It’s normal to not always like the rules and restrictions placed on us.” She suggested people pay greater attention to their mental wellbeing by taking care of themselves and their bodies by sleeping well, eating nutritious food, and exercising regularly, but also suggested paying attention to other people. “If we notice others are behaving out of character, let’s ask how they’re feeling and provide emotional support. Stopping for a chat in your building’s stairwell (from a two-metre distance) might make a difference to someone lacking social support.” She also addressed children who might be experiencing anxiety, suggesting that an open conversation, depending on the child’s maturity is the best way to alleviate their worries.

Víðir ended the briefing with his usual mantra on the importance of personal preventative measures: hand washing and disinfecting shared surfaces is key to preventing infection. He added: “We’re all tired and that’s normal. It’s also normal to be annoyed and angry when rules are unclear. Authorities are listening and aim to do better.”

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ COVID-19 briefings in English on Mondays and Thursdays at 11.00 am UTC.


Rio Tinto Aluminium Smelter Strike Postponed

ISAL aluminium smelter

The staff at the Rio Tinto aluminium smelter in Straumsvík have postponed a strike previously scheduled to begin at eight am tomorrow morning, RÚV reports. A meeting of negotiating committees from the five unions proposing the strike and SA Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise lasted late into the night yesterday, but the unions’ representative stated that the committees had reached an agreement that will be the basis for further negotiations.

The five unions encompass around 400 staff members, whose contracts have been up since early July. Initially, a guerrilla strike should have started last week to put pressure on the negotiations, but was postponed until tomorrow, Friday, after an agreement was reached with the smelter’s management.

“We sat in a meeting until almost 2 am,” Reinhold Richter, the head union representative for the smelter staff told RÚV. “We reached a certain agreement to continue the talks, which led to us postponing the strike scheduled for tomorrow, Friday. And our goal is to finish the talks soon.”

Reinhold stated that the next meeting will be with the State Conciliation and Mediation Officer (SCMO) next Thursday. According to Reinhold, the agreement can not be disclosed to the public at this stage, but he hopes it will lead to signed contracts.  “We have a foundation to build on. A binding agreement on certain things we like.”

Asked if he thinks the smelter staff will agree to a contract based on this agreement, he said it was likely. “Yes, I think so. I still have to introduce this to my people, and that’s my next step.”

Sigur Rós Criticise Injustice of Iceland’s Legal System

Sigur Rós

Two current and two former members of Icelandic band Sigur Rós have released a statement urging the Icelandic government to review Icelandic tax law, which they call “outdated” and “broken.” The band members were charged with tax fraud between the years 2011-2014. Despite full co-operation in the investigation that followed and paying all charges and fines, their case remains open and they face additional punishment through the District Prosecutor, which they assert is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Throughout the case, the band members have maintained their innocence and said that they had, in good faith, left their financial affairs to an accountant who mishandled them. According to the band members’ statement, they “trusted in the judicial process, which we truly believed would exonerate us of any wilful wrongdoing.” Despite obeying all rulings and paying arrears and fines, the band members still face additional punishment at the hands of the District Court.

Double Punishment a Violation of Human Rights

The band asserts that the District Court’s case constitutes a second trial for the same offence, and thus violates Article 4 of Protocol No. 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the prohibition of repeated proceedings and punishment. The European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled against Iceland in comparable cases.

In an interview published recently in The Guardian, the band said the case had caused them to lose faith in their country and the three who live in Iceland were considering moving abroad.

The band members’ full statement follows.

Since we discovered that our financial advisors had seriously misled us over our tax liabilities for the period 2011-2014 we have trusted in the judicial process, which we truly believed would exonerate us of any wilful wrongdoing.

We have always provided our full cooperation to all investigations and reached an agreement with the Icelandic tax authorities to pay what we owed plus interest and fines.

However, in the intervening years we have become victims of an unjust and draconian prosecution by the Icelandic government who are unfairly seeking to portray us as deliberate tax evaders, something we have always and continue to strongly deny. We have been charged and tried twice for the same offence, our assets have been frozen for years now, we are facing potential financial ruin and as such we are calling on the Icelandic government to revoke these outdated double jeopardy tax laws, which have affected numerous Icelandic businesses.

The Icelandic government has now paused any further prosecutions as a result of these concerns but is still actively pursuing over 100 open cases, which is contradictory and makes no sense at all. We want to shine a light on systemic failures rather than individuals. We know that the legislation is broken and that the courts have their hands tied at present. 

This needs to be urgently addressed. We are fortunate to have a platform in order to speak out about this and we do so not just for ourselves but for the many others who have been caught up in this shameful failure of the Icelandic legal system, which does nothing but embarrass our country.