Winter Solstice Today, Brighter Days Ahead

Reykjavík pond downtown

Today the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky all year, in the Northern Hemisphere. In Reykjavík, the sun rose at 11.22am this morning and set at 3.29pm, granting the city a day no longer than four hours and seven minutes. From today, the sun’s trajectory rises and days lengthen, heralding the coming spring.

While Reykjavík’s four-hour day may seem quite short, more northerly locales in Iceland will receive even less daylight today. In Bolungarvík, the Westfjords, the sun rose at 12.11pm today and set at 2.52pm, giving the town’s 930 residents a scant two hours and 41 minutes of day.

While Iceland’s mainland sits below the Arctic Circle, Grímsey island off its north coast stretches just past it. Grímsey’s 61 residents could watch the sun rise at 12.03pm today and set at 2.17pm, making their day shorter than the run time of beloved holiday classic Love, Actually.

Though some may choose to spend the darkest day of the year watching their favourite Christmas movie, the winter solstice has traditionally been celebrated around the globe with festivals and rituals since prehistoric times. In Iceland, most families will spend the coming days preparing for Christmas celebrations on December 24 and 25 – and looking forward to brighter days ahead.

90-Year Anniversary of Iceland’s First Radio News Broadcast

Radios

Yesterday evening marked 90 years since the first radio news broadcast in Iceland, RÚV reports. Today marks the 90-year anniversary of the first full day of radio programming in Iceland, broadcast by Iceland’s national broadcaster RÚV. The first news story ever broadcast, on December 20, 1930, covered the global depression. The following day was a Sunday, and the radio programming featured two church services, as well as music, children’s stories, more news, and – of course – weather.

The arrival of radio in 1930 was revolutionary for Iceland’s small, dispersed population. Today the medium remains important in Icelandic culture and daily life. For example, many Icelanders consider the official start of Christmas to be the sound of bells ringing on the radio at 6.00pm on December 24.

To learn more about the radio’s history and significance in Iceland, read our story A Window to the World: How the Radio Led Iceland Into Nationhood.

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides: Government Assesses Damage and Promises Assistance

Four ministers will travel to Seyðisfjörður on Tuesday to assess the damage caused by recent mudslides. First, they will be tested for COVID-19. Politicians’ response to the calamities in the town has been swift and unanimous: “Of course we will rebuild.” While the extent of the support is yet to be decided, locals have discussed the lack of landslide protection in the mountains above Seyðisfjörður.

Prime Minister States Government’s Role in Emergency is Threefold

“The whole nation is upset over the news,” stated Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir in an interview for the RÚV nightly news. “It’s close to a miracle if no one gets hurt in this disaster. But of course, we all stand with the people of Seyðisfjörður and have them in our thoughts.” According to Katrín, the role of the government in a natural catastrophe such as this is threefold. First of all, the government needs to secure emergency aid and make sure the situation is being handled. Search and Rescue teams, the Red Cross, and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Response are key elements of this response.

Secondly, the government needs to assess the damage to prepare for longterm action, and third of all, they need to secure protection against a similar catastrophe in the long run. “Mudslides aren’t new in Seyðisfjörður but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen catastrophe such as this in the area,” Katrín told mbl.is. “In the long run, it’s important to do something about protection in the mountain and that’s something for which we need to lay down the lines.”

Katrín said that as so often before, when catastrophe strikes, Icelanders stick together as one. “It touches you deeply to see solidarity and how people help each other out. It’s an incredibly tough situation for people to be in, far from their hometown, so our thoughts are with people far from their homes and in this state of uncertainty. so it’s heartening to see the solidarity and cooperation over there.”

When asked about the government’s response, Katrín stated: “As of yet, the extent of the damage is uncertain, but it’s clear that it’s significant. It’s also clear that landslide protections need to be looked at. We’ve already set up an inter-ministerial workgroup that will go over that. But we will have to do more than that and we’ve already started on that work.”

Damage Could Amount to ISK 1 Billion

 The Iceland Natural Catastrophe Insurance CEO Hulda Ragnheiður Árnadóttir estimates that the damage amounts to a billion ISK ($7,774,236, €6,363,347), with ten or twelve buildings destroyed, RÚV reports.

The Iceland Natural Catastrophe Insurance insures real estate and fire insured furnishings for damage from volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, and floods. Their staff was in Seyðisfjörður last Friday before the largest landslide occurred. According to Hulda Ragnheiður, they did not like what they saw then and the outlook is even bleaker after the subsequent landslide. With 10-12 houses destroyed, and minor and major damage to other buildings in town, her first estimate is around a billion ISK. All real estate is insured for the assessed value for fire insurance above a 400,000 ISK deductible. Furnishings are insured if people have taken out fire insurance.

The people of Seyðisfjörður have restored many historical buildings. Hulda states that the restoration value will be reflected in the insurance amounts if people have requested an evaluation of the fire insurance assessment but does not have further information on how well the Seyðisfjörður buildings were insured. She encourages people to report damages as soon as possible, either online or by telephone.

“We don’t know it the area is fit for reconstruction, it is yet to receive a risk assessment. It remains to be seen if people will be allowed to rebuild their houses where they stood. It can be a little complicated,” Hulda told RÚV.

Cultural Heritage Destroyed

While personal damage might be costly, it’s not just monetary damage, but cultural as well. Seyðisfjörður was a historic town and some of the houses destroyed by the landslides were more than a century old. Among the buildings lost was the coutnry’s first sjoppa (local kiosk), a recently renovated ship-building centre and the Technical Museum of East Iceland.

What was most special about these old buildings was the uninterrupted street façade which is now gone. “a whole chunk of the oldest part of Seyðisfjörður is lost. It was the origin of this town, the place where the Norwegian entrepreneurs settled.” Architect Þóra Guðmundsdóttir, author of a book on historical houses in Seyðisfjörður. “The buildings were a part of our national heritage. These are cultural treasures that belonged to all of us.”

Out of the Technical Museum’s four buildings, only one looks like it could be rebuilt, rúv reports. The late-19th-century ship-building centre was a part of its buildings, recently renovated but is now completely gone. The museum’s director Zuhaitz Akizu Gardoki hopes that a fire-safe cabinet containing 8,000 photos documenting the history of Seyðisfjörður from the beginning of the 20th century might be recovered. He’s still uncertain of the next steps as they have yet to assess the extent of the damage.

Government to Travel East After COVID-19 Test

Four ministers will travel east on Tuesday to meet the people of Seyðisfjörður and assess the situation, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson, Minister of Transport and Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson and Minister of Justice and Civil Protection Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir. The trip was originally scheduled for Monday but after talking with local government who have their hands full with the emergency response, a decision was made to postpone the trip. According to the Assistant to the Prime Minister Lísa Kristjánsdóttir, the trip is planned in cooperation with Seyðisfjörður locals. Before the trip, the four ministers will be tested for Covid-19, as is everyone who travels to Seyðisfjörður these days.

No COVID-19 infection have been detected in east Iceland for the past weeks and everyone travelling east to help will be tested for the virus. In an emergency, personal infection prevention regulations are hard to keep up but Chief Epidemiologist þórólfur GUðnason urges everyone to remain as careful as they can. “It’s evident that the situation that has arisen in Seyðisfjörður leads to infection prevention regulation being broken. It’s unavoidable in many cases but people have to take as much care as possible, Þórólfur told mbl.is.

President Sends His Regards

President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson sent warm wishes to the people of Seyðisfjörður and Eskifjöðrður. He stated that the Search-and-rescue teams, the police and others involved with civil protection were controlling the efforts in a resolute and professional manner. “We’re all sticking together now, sending warm thgouths to our fellow Icelanders who have experienced great woes, offering the help that is of use, Guðni stated. “The rain will soon let up and clearing efforst will commence. then the rebuilding starts and in that too, we will also stick together.”

He also mentioned to RÚV that with fewer fireworks this New Year’s Eve, the Search and Rescue teams were losing their means of funding. “I encourage everyone able, to support the Search and Rescue teams and others we rely on, the Red Cross and others so that those who are ready to be on the scene and help at a fateful hour feel the gratitude and receive the help they need to be able to perform this dire duty in our community,” Guðni stated. He added that “I’ve enjoyed the hospitality and kindness of the people of Seyðisfjörður and I look forward to going east at the earliest possibility and experience in this beautiful place the power of the people there. I think most Icelanders will agree that Seyðisfjörður is a beautiful, powerful place and a beautiful and powerful society will continue to blossom there.

More Avalanche Guards but Not Enough Landslide Protection?

Following the avalanches in Flateyri and Suðureyri last January, a decision was made to hasten avalanche protections in the whole country, with 47 tasks. 27 of them are already completed and 35 are to be completed by 2025. All should be completed in 2030. The main focus is on avalanche guards. When asked, Katrín replied that the mudslides would not occasion a change in the policy. We have our plan in the government about avalanche protections and that will remain our priority as those are the most fatal catastrophes that happen.” she stated. Landslide guards will also be considered.

Minister for Local Governmetn Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson stated that the government would support the people of Seyðisfjörður. “These are calamitous events and it’s a miracle that every life was saved. But there’s been great damage to property and it’s much too early to start discussing figures. Now, local government, civil protection and real estate owners need to go over how things are and the government will back them up. Of course, infrastructure in Seyðisfjörður will need to be rebuilt and the government will support the reconstruction. Sigurður Ingi agrees that landslide protection will have to be added to the avalanche protection plans. “In the past year, we’ve sped plans for avalanche guards and we will need to look at landslide guards as well. The funding exists and I don’t think it will be a problem to fund this, Sigurður Ingi told RÚV. He concurred with the Prime minister that Seyðisfjröður would receive government support for the rebuild.

Asked what was the purpose of the trip, Sigurður stated that there’s a system in place to deal with natural disasters and insurances, but that there’s often damage that doesn’t fall under such a system and it’s traditional for the government or its representatives to visit the scene of a disaster for assessment. 

Parliament Sends Warm Regards and Fighting Spirit

During a busy last day at parliament before Christmas, the speaker of Parliament Steingrímur J. Sigfússon sent their regards to east Iceland. In his final speech of the year, he stated: “The year wasn’t done with us yet, as I suspected. I half-expected Katla to erupt but it was a different force of nature that made itself known yesterday with devastating results for the people of Seyðisfjörður. Our thoughts are with the people of Seyðisfjörður, Eskifjörður, and everyone in the east. We send our fighting and solidarity regards from Iceland’s Parliament.

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides: Hundreds Displaced, Hope to Return By Christmas

Seyðisfjörður landslide almannavarnir

Some residents of Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland (pop. 659) have been permitted to return to the town following mudslides that destroyed several homes in the town centre. Nearly 300 cannot return to their homes as of yet. Many of the buildings hit by mudslides over the past several days were historic. No injuries have been reported.

All of East Iceland has been experiencing extremely heavy rainfall recently and state of uncertainty is in effect in the entire region due to risk of landslides. The state of alert is higher in Seyðisfjörður. After many days of record rainfall that saturated the steep slopes above the town, it was hit by several mudslides last Friday and over the weekend. Most Seyðisfjörður residents, or 581, were evacuated from their homes last Friday, but 305 were permitted to return home yesterday afternoon after weather conditions improved. A further 276 have not yet been permitted to return. Authorities have asked all others to stay away from the area.

Hope Most Residents Can Return Home By Christmas

Response teams met this morning to review the conditions in the town, which are being constantly monitored. Conditions have improved significantly since the rain let up and authorities have expressed the hope that most of Seyðisfjörður’s residents will be permitted to return home before Christmas but it is unlikely to be all residents. More news is expected on that front this afternoon.

The mudslides knocked out power to some parts of Seyðisfjörður. Crews are working to restore electricity to the affected areas. The municipality of Mulaþing will hold an online town hall meeting for Seyðisfjörður residents via its Facebook page at 4.00pm today.

A partial evacuation was also conducted last Friday in Eskifjörður, East Iceland, due to a risk of mudslides. None fell in residential areas of the town, and residents have since been permitted to return home.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Vaccination Will Take 3-6 Months, Say Authorities

Iceland has signed contracts for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca and a third contract with Janssen is expected to be signed tomorrow. A fourth contract with Moderna is expected to be signed on December 31. Iceland’s government has already secured enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines for most of the population, but the timeline of when those doses arrive is not yet clear.

Read More: What’s the status of COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland?

Enough doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 5,000 people are expected to arrive on December 28. Health Ministry Secretary Ásta Valdimarsdóttir stated in a briefing today that the government expects to vaccinate most of the nation in the next 3-6 months.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.

 

On the panel: Director of Health Alma Möller and Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson. Special guests: Secretary of the Ministry of Health Ásta Valdimarsdóttir and Director of the Icelandic Medicines Agency Rúna Hauksdóttir Hvannberg, who are expected to discuss imminent COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 7 new domestic COVID-19 cases yesterday (5 from quarantine) and 4 from border testing. Total active cases have risen to 141, the number in hospital has dropped to 29, with 3 in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Víðir begins by discussing Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, which has been devastated by mudslides in recent days. The mudslides are calamitous and while it’s miraculous that no one has been hurt, the damage is extensive and the pain is great. There are over 200 residents of the town that may not yet return home due to ongoing risk. Those who are not residents are asked to stay away from the town and area. The people of Seyðisfjörður’s sense of security is damaged and the work ahead is great. There will be an online town hall meeting via Facebook for Seyðisfjörður residents at 4.00pm today. If people want to be of assistance, we ask them to contact the East Iceland Police. The police is working according to procedure to try to help communities respond to trauma. We stand with the residents of Seyðisfjörður, we will face this together. And Seyðisfjörður will be safe once more.

Alma takes over. She starts by sending her regards to those in Seyðisfjörður, before going over the numbers. The cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in recent days are connected to friend groups and families and tracing has been mostly successful. There are 27 in hospital due to COVID-19 but just 5 of them have active infections. Three are in intensive care and two of those are on ventilators.

There are questions about whether the pandemic is rising again, at least we know that the situation is such that it won’t take much to get it going again. The ratio of positive tests from those getting tested due to symptoms is rising slightly. It was 0.4 per cent a couple of days ago but now it’s 0.9%. Authorities are aware of the news of a new strain of the virus in the UK that seems to be more contagious. While that particular strain’s spike protein has more mutations, it doesn’t cause more severe illness and there’s no indication it won’t respond to vaccinations. One person has been diagnosed with that strain of the virus at the Icelandic border. They went straight into isolation and have not infected anyone else. This indicates clearly that our actions at the border are effective and underlines their importance, says Alma. Healthcare authorities implore people to avoid gatherings in the next few days. “Let’s think of each other and make sure we can all have a merry Christmas,” says Alma.

We are all thinking about vaccination these days, and Secretary of the Ministry of Health Ásta Valdimarsdóttir and Director of the Icelandic Medicines Agency Rúna Hauksdóttir Hvannberg are here to discuss vaccination in Iceland. Ásta takes over and begins by sending her regards to Seyðisfjörður as well. She states she’s at the briefing in order to give information on the government’s vaccine contracts. She states that the Icelandic government began thinking about ensuring vaccine access last spring even though they didn’t think a COVID-19 vaccine would be ready this soon. The COVAX deal and the EU negotiations, of which Iceland is a part, began shortly thereafter. She discusses the COVAX program and its purpose, which is in part to ensure equal distribution of vaccines and ensure vaccine access for developing countries. While COVAX is mostly intended for developing countries, it also gives Iceland the option to purchase additional vaccines.

She also discusses the EU deal which secures Iceland access to vaccines at the same level as EU member countries. Iceland has been cooperating with Icelandic pharmaceutical companies and distributors as well as with Norway, which Ásta says has been helpful. A working group that contains lawyers and specialists with drug acquisition experience is working on vaccine acquisition and another group consisting of medical specialists is concerned with domestic distribution. While Iceland has contracts in place securing vaccine access and a certain number of doses, the contracts don’t outline distribution schedules (i.e. when the doses will arrive). Let’s keep in mind that no vaccine has a market licence within the EU yet, even though we expect Pfizer to receive one before Christmas. There are four contracts currently in the works and we will post updated information on the new website boluefni.is.

We know now that we will receive 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on December 28. From that point until March we will receive 50,000 doses from Pfizer, enough to vaccinate 25,000 people. We expect to be able to vaccinate the majority of the nation in the next few months, beginning with frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents. With the introduction of vaccination, we will likely be able to ease some restrictions in the next year. We will look into that further once vaccination commences.

The Icelandic Medicines Agency (Lyfjastofnun) is in charge of issuing drug licences for the Icelandic market. The European Medicines Agency’s specialists are overseeing vaccine licencing in Europe and two different vaccines seem to be close to being approved. The European Medicines Agency’s licensing of the vaccines is the prerequisite for licensing of the vaccines in Iceland.

The vaccine has been tested on tens of thousands of people, more people than new vaccines are usually tested on. The most common side effects are mild and disappear in a few days but if someone experiences more severe side effects, they are encouraged to report them to the Icelandic Medicines Agency. Many people have wondered why the (Pfizer) vaccine has been approved so fast but it’s important to note that the COVID vaccines have to fulfill the same strict requirements as all other vaccines. While the process has been faster than usual, no steps have been skipped in the approval of COVID vaccines. Vaccination will change life in Iceland and it’s a complicated task. It won’t be easy and it’s important that we’re resilient. She ends by sending her regards to the people of Seyðisfjörður.

On to questions from reporters. The panel is asked about conflicting reports of vaccination timelines – originally the government announced that it would be possible to vaccinate most of the nation by April but now says it will take longer. It’s normal that people wonder about this. We’ve secured vaccines for the whole nation through various contracts but the timeline is not confirmed. Concerning the Bloomberg report and the false information, we have six deals in place which is enough for the whole nation. I also wonder why it’s so desirable that nations secure vaccines for more than double their population while poorer nations don’t have that same access. The World Health Organisation has criticised this behaviour.

The panel is asked about criticism of the EU policy in the vaccination deals. Was it the right decision to work with the EU instead of negotiating for our small nation by ourselves? Ásta replies that states negotiate for themselves and states’ size varies. The European Union is much larger than Iceland and we believed that we would have a stronger negotiating position if we cooperated with the EU instead of negotiating on our own. She mentions that the government first started planning for vaccines in the spring when much less was known about how vaccine production would develop. At that point everyone thought the Sanofi vaccine would be first on the market and Pfizer was much lower on the list. It’s been difficult for negotiators to know which baskets to put their eggs in but Icelandic officials believe Iceland is better off working with the 460 million people of the EU instead of on its own.

It’s not the time to discuss relaxing restrictions now, but Icelandic authorities have done their best throughout the pandemic to ensure that restrictions would not be more severe than they had to be at any given time.

Would it have been possible for Iceland to order more doses from Pfizer and reduce the orders of other vaccines that are not expected to be available soon? Concerning additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine, discussions are ongoing but it’s too early to disclose details. Any additions to the EU deal will be proportionally distributed. She mentions on the other hand, however, that the first doses, which have been called Pfizer’s Christmas present, are not proportional. Iceland will receive 10,000 doses, the same as Germany for example. Those doses cover a much larger proportion of our small population.

When further pressed on the vaccination timeline, Ásta mentions that the end of 2021 is the most pessimistic outlook, they believe they will be able to vaccinate the whole nation in the next three, four, or five months.

Ásta is asked about conflicting reports from Bloomberg and the Icelandic government on how many vaccine doses are available to Iceland. She mentions Iceland’s first three vaccine deals, which will altogether cover vaccinations for 235,000 people. She suggests that it’s possible the secured vaccine dose numbers other countries have reported may include the COVAX contract, which Iceland did not include in its reported numbers, as those doses are mostly intended for developing nations. Iceland has signed two vaccine contracts and is expected to sign the third one tomorrow. They’re working on an additional three but we only have exact dose numbers available for these first three contracts. The vaccine registrations will likely arrive in droves in the next few days and they have different properties that make them more or less suitable for different groups. This is a watershed moment in vaccination, we will learn a lot in the coming weeks and especially from other nations that begin to vaccinate. It’s very important for Iceland that other nations are successful in their vaccination efforts as well.

Ásta mentions the COVAX deal and its benefits for the developing nations and Víðir adds that the fight against COVID-19 won’t be over until it’s over everywhere.

Are Icelandic authorities considering banning travel from the UK, as other nations have done in light of the new strain of the virus that has emerged there? Víðir mentions that there’s heightened surveillance at the airport and they talk to most people arriving in the country. Some people have decided to meet their children at the airport, arriving home from studies abroad, and quarantine with them. If the arriving travellers then test positive, that’s a long quarantine and health risk. Plenty of hotels accept people who need to quarantine due to arriving from abroad, Víðir points out. Plenty of people are being diagnosed and we need to be careful about our reactions to that, so that no one is afraid to get tested or to disclose their symptoms or status. Víðir sends special regards to the people who will be in quarantine or isolation over Christmas and asks others to try to enjoy these strange times with their those closest to them. Víðir notes that this is the last briefing before Christmas. The next briefing will be held on Monday, December 28.

Iceland Review live-tweets authorities’ briefings every Monday and Thursday at 11.03am UTC.