Icelandic Officials Congratulate Biden, US Ambassador Thanks Trump

Icelandic officials have congratulated 46th United States President Joe Biden on his inauguration yesterday. The Prime Minister, President, and Cabinet Ministers of Iceland took to Twitter to send good wishes to President Biden. United States Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter announced yesterday that he is leaving the position, thanking President Trump for the opportunity in a Facebook post that has since been taken down.

Officials Mention Peace and Friendship With US

“Congratulations to President @JoeBiden and Vice President @KamalaHarris on this historic day,” Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir tweeted. “We here in Iceland send you our warmest wishes and I look forward to working with you both towards a sustainable, peaceful, and socially just future.” Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna also referenced a peaceful future in her greeting to the new President and Vice President, tweeting “May the next four years bring peace and unity.”

Iceland’s President and Minister for Foreign Affairs both referenced the nation’s long history of diplomacy with the United States in their tweets to President Biden and Vice President Harris. Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson tweeted: “My heartfelt congratulations on your inauguration @JoeBiden @POTUS and @KamalaHarris. We look forward to work with you and [Secretary of State nominee] @ABlinken on strengthening our longstanding #Transatlantic bond and friendship based on shared democratic values.” As President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson put it, “The United States and Iceland have enjoyed decades of transatlantic relations and a friendship which we look forward to continuing with you.”

Controversial Ambassador Says Goodbye to Iceland

US Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter also posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday, revealing that he would be leaving his post and thanking President Trump for the “tremendous opportunity.” The posts have since been deleted. Ambassador Gunter became an increasingly  controversial figure throughout last year. He was denounced last July for referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Invisible China Virus.”

CBS News reported that same month Gunter had applied for special permission to carry a gun. The CBS article also described an increasingly fractured work environment at the US Embassy in Reykjavík. In October of last year, Gunter accused Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið of irresponsible journalism and “fake news” after Fréttablaðið reported that a staff member of the US Embassy had contracted COVID-19.

Icelandic Seafood Export Bypasses UK Due to Brexit Delays

fishing regulations iceland

Icelandic seafood exporters have needed to adapt to a changed situation in the UK by shipping seafood to Europe through Rotterdam instead of Immingham, Fiskifréttir newspaper reported today. Hopefully, the changes are temporary. Iceland’s seafood export to the UK is one of the issues still up for discussion in Iceland’s trade deal with the UK, which is still to be finalised.

Considerable delays and interruptions have occurred in seafood transport from the UK to countries in the European Union following the Uk’s final exit from the union at the end of last year. Icelandic shipping companies have been affected by delays and have had to adapt to the situation, especially regarding seafood products they have transported to Europe via the UK. Fresh fish has up until now been regularly shipped to Immingham in the UK, loaded on to trucks and driven to France. According to Eimskip representative Björn Einarsson, customers have stopped using the UK as a transit harbour for mainland Europe, due to delays in the Channel Tunnel and tariff issues at the UK-France border. Fresh fish is now shipping directly to Rotterdam instead of going through Europe. “People have adapted their shipping procedures so that the product goes straight to market in Europe through Rotterdam without passing through the UK.” According to Björn, this has not impacted distribution within the UK or export to the UK.

Samskip representative Þórunn Inga Ingjaldsdóttir states that it’s too soon to draw conclusions regarding the future only two weeks into the new year. “Delays surrounding Brexit were foreseen.” Exporters have been anticipating this moment for a while now as EU-UK negotiations stretched on. “We’d changed our system a while ago to be able to continue servicing our customers that ship directly to the European markets,” stated Þórunn Inga. She added that Samskip makes it clear that the situation is temporary. “We’ve worked hard to keep up delivery schedules and a high level of service with our customers and friends in the UK.”

In an interview with Viðskiptablaðið today, Minister of Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson discusses changes to Iceland-UK business relations due to Brexit. While temporary deals with the UK are in place, Guðlaugur notes that despite Brexit finally being a reality, there are still plenty of things to settle regarding trade. As part of the EEA, Iceland is bound in certain ways and until the EU’s Brexit deal was in place, EEA negotiations have been on hold.

When it comes to UK-Iceland trade negotiations, seafood is the most important. “If you were to generalise about the UK, they tend to eat fish caught by other nations while exporting the fish caught in their own fishing jurisdiction.” He mentions as an example the quintessentially British dish of fish and chips, which is, by and large, prepared using Icelandic cod. The UK is also Iceland’s largest export market for lamb. Guðlaugur Þór claimed it was important on this occasion to look at the big picture and continue working towards increased cooperation between nations in Europe, stating: “The UK needs Europe and Europe needs the UK. Cooperation is necessary for more fields than trade.” He added that the EEA states have had no trouble cooperating with the countries of the EU and therefore, there shouldn’t have to be any problems for the UK to continue to work closely with other European countries.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Authorities Preach Patience Toward Vaccines and Restrictions

rögnvaldur ólafsson

The pandemic is not over yet, Icelandic health authorities reminded locals at a COVID-19 briefing in Reykjavík today. Iceland’s active case numbers have fallen regularly in recent days and now sit at 106. Since January 6, at least half of new daily cases have been in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. Nevertheless, authorities cautioned that the country is far from achieving herd immunity and until it does, infection prevention will be crucial for avoiding another wave of infection.

Vaccination against COVID-19 began on December 29 in Iceland. Authorities have now set up a regularly-updated page with statistics on the process. An English-language version is forthcoming. So far, 5,725 have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 480 have received both doses and are fully vaccinated. Authorities expressed their hope that vaccination could speed up in the coming months as manufacturers scale up production.

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

Asked why Iceland could not acquire sufficient vaccines for its small population sooner, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason stated Icelanders were sitting at the same negotiation table as other countries in Europe and are receiving the same number of doses, proportional to population, as others.

The following is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of the briefing.

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special Guest: Sigríður Dóra Magnúsdóttir of capital area healthcare centres. Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases (2 in quarantine) and 2 at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 106. 18 are in hospital due to COVID-19. Statistics about COVID-19 vaccination in Iceland are now also being updated regularly on the official government website. 5,725 have received their first dose while 480 have completed vaccination in Iceland.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur mentions the ongoing risk of avalanche in North Iceland, particularly Siglufjörður. Rögnvaldur also praises the media for their part in bringing information to the public throughout the pandemic. He mentions the new vaccination info website.

Þórólfur goes over the numbers. We’re still seeing relatively few infections domestically, especially outside quarantine. We are, however, still seeing some infections outside of quarantine, which means that the virus is still out there, something to keep in mind. The number of infections at the border fluctuates depending on the number of passengers and their place of departure, Þórólfur says.

I remind people that have started talking about relaxing restrictions further, that it takes a week or two to see the effect of changes to restrictions. It’s been just over a week since restrictions were relaxed.

Pfizer has updated their distribution schedule and for the next few weeks, we’ll receive fewer doses than originally stated. They intend to make up for it in March, meaning that by the end of March, we should have received the same amount of vaccine we were initially promised. We hope that AstraZeneca will receive its market authorisation soon and hope that vaccinations will go faster as time goes on but we can’t promise anything at this point, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur addresses the public discussion (and criticism) of vaccination priority groups. Authorities are aiming to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups first and be as fair as possible in vaccine distribution. Those who are the most likely to contract COVID-19, as well as those who are most likely to develop serious complications from COVID-19, have been prioritised. If we place others before them, we will push our most vulnerable further down the list, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur asks the public to refrain from contacting authorities with requests that they be added to priority groups, as the only result is an increased the workload for health authorities.

Sigríður Dóra takes over to discuss the vaccination process. The group currently being vaccinated is people receiving home care and next week, authorities will continue to vaccinate those over 70, starting with the oldest among them. This will all be announced when the time comes and those who are eligible for vaccination will be contacted electronically. The next groups to be vaccinated are senior citizens and people with underlying health conditions. Everyone who has been treated by a doctor for a relevant condition will be contacted for vaccinations. Healthcare centres don’t prioritise people manually rather it is done by an automated system based on patients’ registered conditions.

One thing regarding allergies: we’re working on guidelines for vaccinating people with a history of severe allergic reactions which will likely be issued today, says Sigríður. Sigríður: If we receive large amounts of the vaccine, we are prepared to start large-scale inoculation in co-operation with municipal authorities and the police. “We will get to everyone when it’s their turn, no one will be left out.” – Sigríður on vaccination in Iceland

When asked about changes to restrictions for at-risk groups in light of vaccination, Þórólfur states that nursing homes make their own rules but that in other parts of the community, vaccinations are still not widespread enough to relax restrictions. Asked whether increased vaccination will cause the public to let down their guard, Þórólfur says that locals have shown unity and solidarity so far. It would surprise him if that were to suddenly change, but authorities are prepared to act if it does.

Negotiations with Pfizer regarding a mass-vaccination study in Iceland are ongoing, nothing new to report from them, however, says Þórólfur. One of the reasons authorities want to perform this study with Pfizer is that it the threshold for herd immunity is still unknown. Though it’s hypothesised to be around 60-70%, experts do not yet know.

Lifting restrictions is not only dependent on vaccination but many factors, including the situation in the countries around us, Þórólfur states. Þórólfur states that they don’t have an exact distribution schedule from Pfizer after March and not much is known about the AstraZeneca distribution schedule. The Jansen vaccine is expected to get a market authorisation sometime in February but the distribution schedule is also unclear. Authorities expect that vaccines will arrive faster once production speeds up but at this point, they don’t know when or how much.

Rögnvaldur discusses increased monitoring of those crossing the border, including follow-ups to border tests, especially the second test following the five-day quarantine.

Reporter: Have Icelandic authorities attempted to negotiate directly with vaccine manufacturers other than Pfizer and why can’t we vaccinate such a small nation quicker than others? Negotiations with other vaccine manufacturers are ongoing but there’s nothing to report, says Þórólfur. We are sitting at the same negotiation table as other countries and receive the same amount of vaccines proportionally.

How long will the immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus last? We don’t know and that’s something to be researched, Þórólfur says. Will new strains require new vaccines? We don’t know and that’s something we have to be prepared for.

Individuals will now be able to receive a certificate of vaccination via Iceland’s online healthcare platform. Other types of certificates for travellers are in the works.

Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing. He reiterates that despite our recent success, the pandemic is not over yet. He reminds people to be on the lookout for symptoms and get tested if they experience symptoms. Even though the gathering limit is now 20 people, that does not mean you should regularly gather in groups of 20, Rögnvaldur adds. Wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a mask when needed. “This is still in our hands, thank you.”

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Monday, January 25 at 11.03am.

No Fatal Accidents for Fishermen Fourth Year Running

Hilmar Snorrason - Iceland Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre

No fishermen died in an accident at work in the year 2020. For the past ten years, fatal accidents at sea average at less than one per year. Four sailors died in 2012 but since 2017, there hasn’t been a fatal accident. This is the fourth year in a row where no fatal accidents occur for fishermen and Hilmar Snorrason, director of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre, is happy with the results.

Read more on the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre

What’s vital for this incredible success is the increased safety consciousness of fishermen, the fishing companies’ increased emphasis on security, and last but not least, the operation of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre. Education and training, as well as better weather forecasts, safer ships and rescue equipment, all work together to make fishermen safer at work, according to Hilmar. Sailors had fewer non-fatal accidents last year as well, with 153 reported accidents to the Icelandic Health Insurance in 2020. In 2019 the number was 172 and 204 in 2018. These numbers encompass both minor wounds and serious accidents.

While most of the numbers of accidents went down, there was a noticeable increase in boats and ships being towed to harbour, with 80 such events in 2020, compared to 18 the year before. Hilmar states that there’s no clear reason for the increase, but one possible explanation is that people are merely reporting such incidents more efficiently. There’s nothing to indicate the global pandemic has had any noticeable effect on sailor safety in the past year.

Hilmar is pleased with the results of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre’s work to increase safety at sea and the reduction of fatal accidents but warns that it doesn’t mean that people can start to relax now. “Maritime safety is not a temporary effort – it requires constant work and vigilance. While we celebrate our victories, we can’t forget how we got here.” In his opinion, the most important step fishermen and fishing companies can take is to perform regular risk assessments and minimise the risk of accidents before they occur.  He dreams that one day, we’ll have a year with no accidents at sea. “I think it’s possible. Just look at the success sailors have had so far.”

University of Iceland Facilities Damaged by Water Leak

University of Iceland flood

All operations are suspended until at least noon today in the University of Iceland’s University Centre, Gimli, Lögberg, Árnagarður, and Main Building. The cause appears to be a breach in a large cold-water pipe in west Reykjavík. The extent of the damage is being assessed, but it is believed to be considerable.

The water damage is greatest in the University Centre building (Háskólatorg) and Gimli, according to Kristinn Jóhannesson, Director of the Operations and Resources Division at the University. Total damage will likely be costly to repair. “We have a sense it will run into hundreds of millions [of krónur, over a million USD]. It is tremendous damage,” Kristinn stated.

Kristinn was fairly certain that valuable manuscripts and documents at the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies had not been damaged by the leak. Some of the affected buildings house artwork and it remains to be seen whether it has been damaged.