Criticism of Finance Minister After He Breaks COVID-19 Regulations

Bjarni Benediktsson kynning fjármálafrumvarp 2021

Opposition MPs have called for Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s resignation after he broke COVID-19 regulations by attending a gathering of 50-60 people on December 23. While several government ministers have expressed disappointment with Bjarni’s actions, none have suggested it warrants the dissolution of the governing coalition.

In the early hours of December 24, media received logs from Reykjavík Capital Area Police describing how officers had broken up a large gathering in downtown Reykjavík the previous night. The gathering was at a public venue and occurred after the mandated closing time of 9.00pm. “Between 40-50 guests were gathered in the hall, and one honoured Minister of the Icelandic cabinet among them,” the log stated. Iceland’s national gathering limit is currently 10 individuals and social distancing of 2 metres is mandatory in most public situations.

Guests Drinking and Kissing

“There was considerable drunkenness at the gathering and most of the guests had alcohol in hand. Police noticed that none of the guests wore face masks. Policemen stated that distancing regulations were barely respected by anyone.” Police then notified the event organisers that the incident would be reported and ordered the guests to leave. “Many guests took leave of each other with hugs and some with kisses. One of the guests was dissatisfied with the police intervention and compared us to Nazis,” the log concluded.

Minister Apologised for Not Leaving Immediately

Though police did not identify which minister was at the gathering, it came to light soon after that it had been Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who is also Chairman of the Independence Party. In a Facebook post published on the morning of December 24, Bjarni stated that he and his wife were downtown the previous evening and received a call from some friends asking them to stop by the venue in question and say hello. “When we came in and went up into the hall last night I should have realized that there were more people there than rules allow.” Bjarni stated that he had been at the gathering for 15 minutes when police arrived to break it up. “The right response would have been to leave the art gallery immediately as soon as I realised that the crowd was above limits. I did not do that and I sincerely apologise for that mistake,” the Minister concluded in his post.

Á heimleið úr miðborginni í gærkvöldi fengum við Þóra símtal frá vinahjónum, sem voru stödd á listasafninu í…

Posted by Bjarni Benediktsson on Thursday, December 24, 2020

 

Parliament Responds

Several government ministers have responded to the incident. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that Bjarni’s attendance of the event damaged trust in the government, but did not call for his resignation. Transport Minister and Progressive Party Chairman Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson called the incident “unfortunate,” and stated that it did not set a good example, but added that it would not affect co-operation in the three-party coalition government.

The Chief Epidemiologist also responded to the incident, saying: “It is just very bad when the nation’s leaders don’t follow these rules,” adding that it was “a shame” that the incident had happened.

While opposition MPs and others outside of Parliament have called for Bjarni to resign, Political Scientist Eiríkur Bergmann believes such a move to be unlikely. Eiríkur also stated it is unlikely the incident would lead to a dissolution of the governing coalition. He speculated that it was more likely to have a negative effect on the coalition’s Left-Green Movement than Bjarni’s own Independence Party, as Independence Party voters were more likely to forgive the Minister for his actions.

Seyðisfjörður Mudslides: Hope Residents Can Return Home Today

Seyðisfjörður is still on alert due to the risk of further mudslides and the situation in Eskifjörður will continue to be monitored. Weather conditions in the area have hindered cleaning efforts. Partial evacuation is still in place but the situation will be reassessed today and experts hope that evacuation can be lifted.

An announcement from the Civil Protection Department of the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police and the Chief of Police in East Iceland stated that there’s a continued level of danger in Seyðisfjörður. While partial evacuation is still in place due to a continued risk of mud flow, they hope to be able to further lift evacuations today. Some people have been away from home for three weeks at this point and around 40 people celebrated Christmas in an emergency response centre.

Seyðisfjörður saw heavy rains yesterday.  The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration opened the mountain road yesterday afternoon but the roads were icy and they’re closed again today. There have been no reports of mud flow or rumbling sounds in the area in the past few days. Readings from yesterday morning indicate that there has been little to no movement at the source of the mud flow.  No clean-up operations were scheduled yesterday in the evacuation zone due to weather conditions but they are scheduled to resume tomorrow. Today, experts at the Meteorological Office and their associates will reassess conditions and the need for continued evacuations.

East Iceland Police Chief Superintendent Kristján Ólafur Guðnason told RÚV the weather conditions are affecting the situation. Data transport to the Meterological Office has been affected and the road closures have had an adverse effect on the people of Seyðisfjörður’s sense of safety, as the road over the mountain is the only available escape route on land.

In Eskifjörður, no evacuation orders are in place and no mudslides have fallen on residential areas. No movement has been measured over the last 24 hours as cracks formed in the road up to Oddskarð.  The area will continue to be monitored. The Meteorological Office has installed a camera monitoring the cracks and stationary points are measured once a day to anticipate any movement in the mountainside. The most recent measurements indicate that there’s no shift.

Iceland Celebrates “A New Chapter” in Fight Against COVID-19

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shipment Iceland

“The battle against COVID-19 has been long and hard, but it is my belief that a new chapter in the fight begins today,” Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated this morning as authorities received the first shipment of Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to the country. Drug distributor Distica will now review the shipments to ensure they have not been damaged, and await the final go-ahead from Pfizer. Vaccination is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

The first shipment contains 10,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to vaccinate 5,000 people. Healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be the first to receive the vaccine, which is administered in two doses with a minimum 21-day interval. Despite their optimism and celebration, authorities underlined the importance of maintaining personal preventative measures and social distancing in Iceland until herd immunity is achieved.

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of our live-tweeting from the briefing at Distica facilities this morning.

 

Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir takes the microphone. She congratulates Icelanders on this watershed day. Vaccination begins tomorrow, we can do this quickly and well thanks to our strong healthcare system, staff, and infrastructure, says Svandís. Iceland reported its first COVID-19 case on February 28. No one believed then that a vaccine would be developed so quickly, Svandís says. The reason it has been possible to develop one so quickly is thanks to co-operation. Co-operation between countries and institutions. We know we are stronger together. It’s also thanks to the collaboration between Nordic countries and European countries that this vaccine has arrived today.

Svandís says Iceland has ensured it will acquire more COVID-19 vaccine doses than in needs for its population, and will provide the excess to those who need it most. Iceland’s contract for the Moderna vaccine is to be signed December 30. The contract for the AstraZeneca vaccine was signed on October 15 and it is also expected to be licensed in the EU soon. “2021 will be the year we win the fight against COVID-19.”

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason takes over. “The battle against COVID-19 has been long and hard, but it is my belief that a new chapter in the fight begins today.”

It is good to remember that this vaccine is very effective against COVID-19 and is very safe. I will therefore encourage everyone who is offered the vaccine to take it. “I will encourage all residents that can be vaccinated to do so, as it is a prerequisite for our continued success in this battle.”

We still need to follow the necessary precautions, and heed the infection prevention regulations, Þórólfur reminds the public. Together, we will come out of the snowstorm we’ve been walking through for the past year. Many people have worked hard to bring the vaccine here to Iceland but two people have stood out, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur gives Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir and the CEO of Distica Júlía Rós Atladóttir bouquets as a token of thanks for their work in getting the vaccine to Iceland. “Thank you, and again, congratulations.”

The panel opens for questions. “Who will receive the first dose?” We’ll find out tomorrow. Svandís states that she has butterflies in her stomach.

Svandís followed the shipment’s progress through flight radar and according to her, the progress was successful. Júlía takes over to explain thatDistica staff will now open the boxes and confirm the shipment has maintained the required temperature of -80 degrees Celsius. Provided the shipment has not been damaged, Distica will then need the go-ahead from Pfizer before starting vaccination.

Þórólfur is asked about a possible Iceland-Pfizer vaccine research project that would ensure more doses arrive in Iceland soon. He says there have been no developments on that front. Svandís ends the briefing by stating that she’s extremely happy about this start of a new chapter. “We must continue to show solidarity and optimism, good luck to us all.”

Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Lands in Iceland

The first 10,000 doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine landed in Iceland this morning shortly after 9.00am, Vísir reports. Vaccination is scheduled to begin tomorrow and all 10,000 doses are to be administered before the end of the year. Though the arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccine to the island is certainly a watershed moment, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated that herd immunity to COVID-19 may not be achieved in Iceland before the second half of next year.

An aeroplane transporting Iceland’s first doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine landed at Keflavík International Airport this morning. The vaccines will be taken to Icelandic drug distributor Distica’s facilities, where they will be examined to ensure they have not been damaged in transport. Iceland’s Health Minister, Chief Epidemiologist, Director of Health, and Director of Civil Protection will be present at the facilities when the vaccine arrives.

Healthcare Workers Among First to Receive Shot

If all goes as planned, COVID-19 vaccination will begin in Iceland tomorrow. Among the first to receive the vaccine will be 770 employees of the National University Hospital’s COVID-19 ward, emergency ward, intensive care ward, and children’s emergency services. Nursing home residents and staff will also be among the first to be vaccinated. Each individual will receive two doses of the vaccine with a minimum 21-day interval. Vaccination will be free of charge and optional.

Herd Immunity Through Pfizer Alone?

Iceland is currently scheduled to receive 3,000 additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine per week in January and February, and a total of 170,000 doses of the vaccine from the manufacturer, or enough to vaccinate 85,000 people. Iceland is in various stages of negotiations to acquire five other COVID-19 vaccines through the European Union. Most of the vaccines are, however, in early stages of development and the Chief Epidemiologist has stated that it could take as long as six months to vaccinate a majority of the nation and achieve herd immunity.

Read More: COVID-19 Vaccination in Iceland

Icelandic authorities are, however, attempting to speed up the process. Both the Chief Epidemiologist and deCODE CEO Kári Stefánsson are in direct negotiations with Pfizer in an attempt to secure enough doses for the entire population of 368,000. Authorities argue that Iceland would be an ideal place to conduct a country-wide study on the effects of the vaccine and developing herd immunity. Were Iceland to receive enough doses of COVID-19 vaccine at once, authorities have stated that it would be possible to vaccinate most of the country’s population within days.