Chief Epidemiologist Rescinds Recommendation For Easing Restrictions

Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason

Last Wednesday, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason gave his recommendation on updates to infection prevention regulations to the Minister of Health. His recommendations suggested easing restrictions moderately in some ways. In light of the recent increase of infections out of quarantine, Þórólfur has now rescinded his recommendation and asks the Minister to wait for a new memo, RÚV reports. He urges people to steer clear of all gatherings. The infections in the past few days are traced to parties and gatherings of friends and families.

Þórólfur states that the pandemic is currently growing. “We’ve seen an increase in numbers every day for a few days, especially with people outside quarantine. If this continues, there are indications of exponential growth and then, the situation can quickly get worse.” For 12 consecutive days, infections out of quarantine were five or fewer. For the past two days, however, there’s been an increase with eight and eleven cases out of quarantine, respectively. The numbers are still relatively low compared to the high points of the last wave, but if the development continues, another wave is on the horizon, right on the heels of the last one.

The current infection prevention restrictions are in place until December 2. Þórólfur turned in his recommendations for what should happen next last Wednesday. Asked if he would need to reconsider them, he answered in the affirmative. “There’s a revision clause in every memo I send the Minister because I have to send them a long time before they are to take effect. When I sent the recommendations, things looked a lot better. My disclaimer was that I might have to reconsider my recommendations if things were to change for the worse. I think that has now happened and I have spoken to the minister about that,” Þórólfur said. He will hold off on making his final recommendations until more is known about the current development.

Þórólfur was asked if this meant easing restrictions was out of the question, but he declined to comment. “I’ve said before that we need to be very careful when easing restrictions, and that’s what I said when things were looking very positive. We need to be even more careful when we see things going the other way.” Þórólfur was also wary of giving predictions for the coming weeks, stating: “We should be looking at the next few days, not the next few weeks. But I think this should be a motivation for everyone. What we’re seeing now is the effect of what happened a week ago, because it takes about a week before the numbers reflect the changes. This is the result of gatherings, not necessarily huge parties. Any gatherings, within families or outside them, are a clear risk factor. This is a time when people get together, especially families. We want to ask people to be very careful and stay away from such gatherings so we won’t be hit hard in the coming weeks.

More Young Icelanders Living With Their Parents During Pandemic

iceland real estate

The percentage of young Icelanders who live with their parents has gone from 42% to 70% in less than a year, according to a survey Zenter performed for the Housing and Construction Authority. It’s clear that COVID-19 plays a role, as 18-24 year-olds’ unemployment has risen 134% in one year.

The Housing and Construction Authority’s economic report states that conditions for buying real estate have never been better, due to lower interest rates. The real estate market has been a busy one since the beginning of summer as more people have been able to buy real estate. This affects the rental market and a recent survey indicates that renters are getting fewer. Iceland’s rental market is an unstable one and not many people choose to rent if they have the option not to.

The percentage of people who rent their home hasn’t been lower since late 2008, just after the banking collapse. Since then, the percentage has hovered between 14-18%, averaging at 16%. Since mid-year 2019, the percentage has steadily gone down, from 18% July 2019 to 13% July 2020. This correlates with the timing of the Central Bank of Iceland lowering interest rates. The Housing and Construction Authority’s last rental survey indicated that nine out of ten would rather own their home than rent if possible.

Since the pandemic started, the supply of rental apartments has increased, rental prices have gone down and more people have the option of buying a home. According to the survey, only 14% of people believed COVID-19 had negatively impacted their position in the rental market. There’s one group however, that’s been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, 18-24-year-olds. At the end of last year, only 42% of them were living at home with their parents but that number has risen steadily since then, reaching 70% in August. The tourism and hospitality industries, where many in this age group work, are going through a deep recession. Unemployment for people in this age group has more than doubled while at the same time, the percentage of employment overall has decreased by 14.5%. That’s a strong indication that economically speaking, the pandemic is hitting young people harder than others. They’re stuck living with their parents and aren’t entering the rental market or buying their own homes at the moment.

Government to Stop Air Mechanic Strike With Legislation

Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir minister of justice

Minister For Justice Áslaug Arna Sigubjörnsdóttir has presented a bill proposing legislation to stop the Icelandic Coast Guard’s air mechanics’ strike.

“Their work concerns public safety and it must be returned to normal immediately,” Áslaug Arna stated. According to her, the bill gives air mechanics freedom to finish wage negotiations by January 4, otherwise, it will be sent to a court of arbitration. She says the whole government is behind the decision.

Read more: Icelandic Coast Guard Air Mechanic Strike

The main sticking point in the negotiations is the Coast Guard’s air mechanics’ will to preserve the link to Iceland’s Union of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians’ wage agreements, whose members mostly constitute Icelandair air mechanics. While the government has offered a one-year extension of the current agreement, giving them the same pay raises as Icelandair’s air mechanics, the Coast Guard’s air mechanics turned down the offer, demanding instead a three-year contract. Sate Conciliation and Mediation Officer Aðalsteinn Leifsson told Vísir yesterday that no new meeting was scheduled between opposing committees. He did not see a reason to schedule another meeting after his attempts to resolve the negotiations didn’t succeed.

Áslaug Arna wrote about the decision to stop the strike on Facebook, stating: “The Icelandic Coast Guard is one of the main foundations of security and public protection in the country. The need for a powerful rescue service is most dire at this time of year as the days are short. Dangerous meteorological conditions are created all over Iceland, not the least for sailors out on fishing grounds. The Icelandic Coast Guard’s helicopters are not only vital when it comes to search and rescue operations on land and sea but they also take care of emergency medical transport, making them an important link in medical and security services for the public.

The air mechanic strike has endangered this safety. The situation is intolerable and I don’t think it right that one profession within the Icelandic Coast Guard can affect the nation’s safety in this way. Especially when other members of the Coast Guard are not allowed to strike due to the importance of their work. The Government’s negotiating committee has offered the Coast Guard’s air mechanics a new agreement with the same pay raises others have received, without continuing the arrangement of linking the wage agreement to ones negotiated by Icelandair. These negotiations have now stranded and air mechanics turned down the state mediator’s suggestion of a one-year extension of the old agreement. The wage negotiation concerns the public interests and the public’s safety. The operation of the Coast Guard’s aircraft simply must return to normal immediately.

Therefore, I have suggested, and the government agreed, to propose to Parliament legislation to stop the strike and sending the wage negotiations to arbitration court if they haven’t been resolved by January 4. The arbitration court will also be asked to consider ways to execute linking the wage agreements in a way that’s comparable to other public employees. All this will be further explained in a report attached to the bill that I will present in Parliament today.”

Helicopter Maintenance Advancing Slower Than Anticipated

TF-GRÓ Icelandic Coast Guard Helicopter

Scheduled maintenance on TF-GRO, the Icelandic Coast Guard’s helicopter has progressed slower than anticipated, RúV reports. A notice from the Icelandic Coast Guard states that not all air mechanics that the Coast Guard considers eligible to work despite the strike, have shown up to work. It’s now clear that maintenance will not be completed in the two days originally planned.

“A small part of the group was occupied with negotiations yesterday, while others, that were anticipated to attend work, didn’t,” the notice states. The Icelandic Coast Guard’s air mechanics have been on strike since November 5, and a long but ultimately unsuccessful meeting between the Coast Guard’s air mechanic and the government took place yesterday.

If the air mechanics start working on the maintenance today, work could be completed Sunday afternoon. If they don’t, it will take longer.

The Icelandic Coast Guard sent the air mechanics a letter on Wednesday encouraging them to turn up and perform the aircraft maintenance to resolve the emergency. The Coast Guard also requested an exemption from the strike for the fourth time, in light of the severity of the situation but Iceland’s Union of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians denied the request for the fourth time.

The wage negotiations strand first and foremost on the air mechanics’ demand that their wage agreements be linked to Iceland’s Union of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians’s wage agreements. While the government has offered them a one-year extension of the current agreement, preserving the link to the larger union’s wae agreement, that offer was denied, demanding instead a new three-year agreement.

Reykjavík Public Health Office Suggests Restrictions On Fireworks

The Reykjavík Public health Office considers it desirable that sale of large fireworks to the public is restricted and that such fireworks should only be used in official fireworks displays requiring official permits. While the Ministry of Justice has recently suggested limiting sales and use of fireworks to only a few days around New Year’s Eve, the Public Health Office calls it an anachronism to create an unhealthy situation for shortlived entertainment.

The Minister of Justice has published a draft for regulations suggesting that the sales period of fireworks is shortened and that the public would only be allowed to set off fireworks for a period of three days.

Read more: Should Iceland Restrict the Public’s Access to Fireworks?

The Reykjavík Public Health Office stated in its comment that these restrictions will be hard to enforce. Experience shows that the use of fireworks happens outside the current permissible period, both in the days before and after New Year’s Eve but also in other times of the year. The Public Health Office believes the regulations should be stricter, giving municipalities the option to ban the use of firework in their area.

The public health office says it’s unacceptable to create unhealthy conditions in an urban area with the public’s unrestricted use of fireworks. The worst cases, there can be enough pollution to rival a natural disaster. The office also considers it desirable to ban the sale of large fireworks to the public and that there could even be limits to how many fireworks one individual can purchase. It’s an “anachronism to recreationally create situations that are bad for public health.”

The Reykjavík Public Health Office’s review was presented at a meeting with the Reykjavík Committee of Environment and Health. The meeting’s minutes included a formal entry from the committee’s majority that they agreed wholeheartedly with the Public Health Office’s stance. It was sad that this chance hadn’t been used to make more effective and more radical changes, such as banning particularly dangerous fireworks or setting a limit to individual fireworks’ purchases. Shortlived entertainment couldn’t justify that people’s environment and health were put in danger.

The committee’s independence party and centre party members, on the other hand, didn’t consider it within the city’s jurisdiction to decide which fireworks could or could not be sold. They also disagreed with that limits should be placed on how much fireworks each individual could purchase or how many fireworks would be imported.

In Iceland, New Year’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with a bonfire and fireworks. In recent years, there have been increased concerns over the safety of these celebrations, especially in densely populated urban areas.