Debated Íslandsbanki Sale into the Wee Hours

Alþingi parliament

Iceland’s Parliament debated the recent sale of a 22.5% stake in Íslandsbanki until 2:30 AM this morning. It was the first time Alþingi had convened since before the Easter break and most of the discussion centred on the controversial sale.

The government has received harsh criticism for the share offering’s lack of transparency, and for the 5% discount buyers received on the shares’ market value, despite high demand for the shares. Many have also criticised the fact that smaller, short-term investments were permitted in the sale, and that staff of the consulting company that managed the sale were among the investors. The sale is being investigated by the Central Bank and reviewed by the National Audit Office.

Minister of Finance presented report

Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson presented an oral report on the sale during yesterday’s session. While maintaining that the sale had in general been successful, he admitted that it had raised questions regarding three aspects in particular: the possible participation of employees of the consulting company involved in the sale, the possible participation of buyers who did not fulfill the stated requirements of being professional investors, and the dissemination of information to the public.

Bjarni stated that the public could have been better informed about the sale. He added that it had taked a long time to access and release information about the sale after the offering and some questions had remained unanswered for too long.

Criticise dismantling of state investment company

Opposition MPs criticised the government’s decision to dismantle Icelandic State Financial Investments (ISFI) in light of how the sale went. They questioned whether that decision had truly been discussed at a cabinet meeting, as as an announcement from the government stated. Chairman of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunlaugsson asked whether government ministers had any plan as to what would replace the ISFI.

A controversial sale

Íslandsbanki was fully owned by the government until last year, when it sold a 35% stake in the bank, something that had been on the government agenda for years. While that first offering was open to the public, last month’s offering was solely open to professional investors. The second sale reduced the government’s stake in the bank from 65% to 42.5%.

Two protests have been held where attendees opposed how the sale was handled, calling for Bjarni Benediktsson’s resignation.

COVID May Be a Factor in Elevated Number of Deaths in Early 2022

Chief Epidemiologist Iceland Þórólfur Guðnason

Statistics Iceland reported an unusually high number of deaths in the first quarter: 760 in total, or 150 more than during the same period last year. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says COVID-19 could be a factor. He says, however, that the numbers much be considered in context.

When looking at the numbers of monthly deaths between 2012 and 2019 on one hand, and 2020 and 2022 on the other, it comes to light that there was an increase in deaths among those 70 and older in March, but not in February. The wave of omicron infection peaked in March, as Þórólfur told RÚV. “As we have pointed out before, it seems that COVID has been an influencing factor in the deaths of many senior citizens and people with underlying illness.”

COVID restrictions likely prevented senior deaths

Þórólfur adds that it is difficult to make conclusions about COVID deaths from these numbers alone, but it is interesting to note that in the middle of 2020 and at the start and end of 2021, the number of deaths among those 70 and older was unusually low. “I think it is very likely that the measures that were in effect in 2020 and 2021 protected this age group well,” Þórólfur stated.

Long Wait Times for Mental Health Services: Report

Landspítali national hospital

The demand and need for mental health services has been growing in Iceland each year. The wait times for services are too long and not in line with government aims, a new report from the Icelandic National Audit Office indicates. According to the report, mental health services need to be better coordinated so that fewer people fall through the cracks in the system.

“Gray areas where individuals end up between services and do not receive the appropriate services need to be eliminated,” the report states. “Many of these areas are well known, but attempts to eliminate them have not been successful.”

Staffing is a challenge

One of the challenges the report pointed out was a need to ensure a sufficient supply of qualified staff in mental health services, an issue that must be addressed by examining wages, working conditions, and housing issues. Ensuring study programs and residencies is also key in counteracting the shortage within specific mental health professions, according to the report.

Equalising access is important

When it comes to ensuring people have equal and timely access to mental health services, improvements are needed. The report’s authors suggest such issues could be addressed by concluding agreements with self-employed psychiatrists and psychologists and by ensuring services are available in languages other than Icelandic.

The National Audit Office also points out that many mental health teams currently operating within the public healthcare system only have temporary funding. Permanent funding would ensure they could continue their work, while ensuring a social services representative on such teams would help better coordinate health and social services.

Many Icelandic Residents Unaware of Right to Vote

Reykjavík City Hall ráðhús

Foreign residents who have lived in Iceland consecutively for three years have the right to vote in municipal elections, but many of them are not aware of that right, says Sara Björg Sigurðardóttir, a candidate for the Social-Democratic Alliance in Iceland’s upcoming municipal elections. Citizens of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland whose legal residence is in Iceland also have the right to vote in municipal elections, regardless of how long they have lived in the country.

“We’re talking about residents who have been living here for many years, paid taxes and fees, been active users of city services but didn’t know that they could vote in municipal elections,” Sara Björg told Fréttablaðið. “As a society, we need to do better when it comes to informing our residents about what rights they have in our society. One of the most precious ones is the right to vote.”

Amendments to Iceland’s municipal election laws took effect on January 1 of this year, shortening the period foreign citizens must reside in Iceland before they acquire the right to vote in municipal elections.

Municipal elections are held every four years in Iceland, and occur on the same date in all municipalities across the country. The upcoming municipal elections will be held on May 14, and advanced polls are already open.