The short answers to these questions are: the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 has proved more infectious than experts hoped; and Icelandic authorities have adopted a policy of curbing the spread of infection with mild social restrictions rather than aiming to eliminate the virus entirely with harsh restrictions. This policy allows Icelandic society to operate as “normally” as possible at any given time.
Now for a longer answer: Icelandic health authorities began administering vaccines against COVID-19 at the end of 2020. The country lifted all domestic restrictions due to COVID-19 on June 26, 2021, when around 88% of the population 16 and over had received one or both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Before that point, the newer Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus had not spread widely in Iceland. Just four weeks after restrictions were lifted, they were reimposed due to rising case numbers.
The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was responsible for the wave of infection that followed, Iceland’s largest until that point. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, like many other health experts, had hoped that vaccines against COVID-19 would not only reduce rates of serious illness but would also reduce transmission rates until the virus was no longer a threat to public health. Unfortunately, vaccines proved less effective against the Delta variant than the variants they had been developed for, and Iceland learned that vaccinated individuals could still contract and transmit SARS-CoV-2 at high enough rates to kickstart a larger wave of infection.
It bears noting that vaccination has had a significant impact in reducing rates of serious illness, hospitalisation, and even infection due to COVID-19 in Iceland and has therefore significantly reduced strain on Iceland’s healthcare system. Local data revealed unvaccinated individuals were four times as likely to be hospitalised due to COVID-19 infection and six or seven times more likely to end up in the ICU than those who are vaccinated in the most recent wave of infection. This is clear in the continually updated data on Iceland’s official COVID-19 website.
Though vaccination has been moderately effective, COVID-19 remains a public health threat in Iceland. Authorities’ approach is to minimise the spread of infection using the mildest restrictions possible at any given time. This allows society to operate as openly as possible and avoids lockdowns. Iceland also maintains border restrictions including testing and quarantine depending on the vaccination status of arriving travellers to prevent COVID-19 cases from entering the country.