Foreign Minister Calls for Border Control, Increased Police Powers

Palestinian protesters outside Iceland's Parliament

In a Facebook post Friday night, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson called for tighter regulations for asylum seekers and increased border control. He posted a picture of tents pitched by Palestinian protesters outside Alþingi, saying that it was “incomprehensible” that this was allowed.

Palestinian protesters have been camped outside of Alþingi since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out family reunifications for residents of Gaza whom they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Palestinian flags outside Alþingi

“It’s a disaster to see the camp at Austurvöllur,” Bjarni wrote. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that the city of Reykjavík has allowed the camp on this holy site between the statue of Jón Sigurðsson and Alþingi. Yesterday, Reykjavík made things worse by extending the license.”

He went on to write that this “sad camp” had nothing to do with the traditional protests that take place in front of the statue of Iceland’s 19the century independence movement leader and the nation’s Parliament. “The group flies multiple Palestine flags and attaches them to lampposts and tents,” Bjarni wrote. “No one should be allowed to fly any national flag for weeks outside of Iceland’s Alþingi to protest Icelandic authorities.”

Calls for increased police powers

Bjarni went on to write that he understood the concerns and uncertainties of those in Iceland away from their families, many of whom live under terrifying conditions. “However, we must remember that the protesters are in a country that receives many more asylum applications than neighbouring countries,” he wrote and added that Iceland had received more Palestinian people than any other Nordic state.

“The next thing that needs to happen is to tighten regulations about asylum seekers and harmonise them with what our neighbouring countries have in place,” he added. “We need to increase border control. The current arrangement has gone out of control, both with regards to costs and the number of applications.”

Lastly, he wrote that Alþingi had failed by rejecting the Minister of Justice’s proposals on this issue and that the police should be given additional authority to fight international criminal activities.

Most asylum seekers from Ukraine and Venezuela

223 Palestinians applied for asylum last year, Heimildin reports, but total applications were down from the record year of 2022. Nearly 80% of applicants in 2022 and 2023 came from either Ukraine or Venezuela. The current government coalition introduced measures that led to the increase in applications from these countries. Between 2018 and 2021, almost every applicant from Venezuela received international protection, as the government ruled that the situation in Venezuela was too dangerous. Asylum seekers from Ukraine have received international protection since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Icelanders Flock to US as Borders Reopen

The United States opened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from other countries on Monday, RÚV reports, precipitating a rush of Icelanders looking forward to finally being able to visit family members and/or enjoy some time in the southern sun after over a year and a half of being barred entry to the country.

Prior to Monday, only Icelanders qualifying for particular exemptions, such as travel for work or study, were allowed to enter the US. Now, any traveller who has proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test is allowed to visit.

Five Icelandair flights to the US were scheduled on Monday, to US destinations New York (JFK), Seattle, Boston, and Orlando. Florida is a particularly popular North American destination for Icelanders, particularly in the fall and winter months, and many Icelanders own second homes there.

Ragnheiður Gyða Ragnarsdóttir was travelling to the Sunshine State to clear out the basement of a flat that her parents sold last year—and to enjoy “slightly” better weather than Iceland is currently experiencing.

Sigurbjörg Björgvinsdóttir and her husband were embarking on a four-week trip to Florida as well. She noted that lots of Icelanders stay in the area the couple was travelling to, “a whole neighbourhood,” even.

Icelandair CEO Bogi Nils Bogason said that local bookings skyrocketed as soon as the November 8 border opening was announced. “We now have 11 destinations in North America—ten in the US and one in Canada.” He said that flights would be added depending on demand. “We’re not quite back to normal, but having gotten through COVID, you could say that we’re in a better place now than we were a few months ago. All in all, we’re on a positive track.”

Travellers Without Negative COVID Test Could Face Fine

Keflavík Airport

Travellers arriving in Iceland must produce evidence of a negative COVID-19 test. RÚV reports that this requirement applies to both Icelanders and foreign nationals, regardless of vaccination status. Those who cannot produce proof of a negative COVID test taken could face a fine of up to ISK 100,000 [$810; €682] upon arrival in the country.

The imposition of fines follows in the wake of new governmental regulations issued earlier this month, which require airlines to inspect COVID test and vaccination certificates prior to boarding for all international flights.

Per the government’s website, as of July 27, all passengers—including vaccinated individuals and those who can furnish proof of a prior COVID-19 infection—”must present a negative PCR or antigen (rapid) test that is no more than 72 hours old before departure to Iceland.”

Travellers to Iceland Must Present Negative PCR Test at Border

As of February 19, all travellers entering Iceland from abroad will be required to provide a certificate of a negative PCR test administered no more than 72 hours before their departure. This measure is in addition to Iceland’s existing double testing and five-day quarantine requirements. Border officials will also have the authority to place certain travellers in government-monitored quarantine hotels, according to new border regulations decided on by Iceland’s cabinet today.

Certificates Shown Before Departure

Passengers will be required to present their certificate before boarding their flight or ship to Iceland as well as upon arrival to the country. Icelandic authorities will only accept certificates in English, Norwegian, Swedish, or Danish. Travellers will also be required to register their results electronically before departure.

Those with Contagious Variants Must Isolate in Government Facilities

According to the new regulations, authorities can place travellers who test positive in their first border test in a quarantine hotel if it is demonstrated that they do not have access to adequate facilities to isolate or quarantine. As of February 19, travellers will be required to isolate in a government-run quarantine hotel if they test positive for a variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is known to be more contagious or be more likely to cause serious illness, such as the British, South African, and Brazilian variants.

Tightened Borders to Protect Domestic Success

In order to protect the nation’s success in containing the pandemic locally, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason recommended the Health Ministry impose further restrictions at the country’s borders. Ensuring active COVID-19 cases do not cross the borders is key to being able to relax domestic restrictions, according to Þórólfur.

These border regulations will be in place until May 1, when new regulations are expected to take effect that may allow travellers from low-risk areas to forego quarantine in Iceland, though they would still be required to undergo testing.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Second Day With No New Cases

Iceland reported no new domestic cases of COVID-19 for the second day in a row yesterday. At a briefing in Reykjavík today, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason celebrated the success of both domestic and border measures in keeping the pandemic at bay. The island nation currently has 21 active cases of COVID-19, and Þórólfur stated that if case numbers continue to be low, he would consider easing restrictions earlier than the scheduled date of March 3.

The Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines are being administered in Iceland, where 5,362 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (1.45% of the population) and an additional 8,015 have received their first dose. Þórólfur stated that the nation’s main goal in the coming weeks was to continue vaccination efforts as well as maintain its success in containing local infections. The most important factor in keeping local infection numbers low is ensuring no COVID cases leak through the borders. Authorities are considering further tightening border regulations and increasing their monitoring of arriving travellers during their mandatory five-day quarantine. All travellers to Iceland are currently required to undergo testing upon arrival, a 5-6 day quarantine, and a followup test.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Chief Superintendent Víðir Reynisson.

Víðir is likely to be asked about two US citizens who breached travel quarantine regulations, according to a report from Fréttablaðið yesterday.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 0 new domestic cases yesterday and 0 cases at the border. Total active cases have dropped to 21. 11 are in hospital. 5,362 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Iceland. 377 frontline workers received their second dose of the Moderna vaccine yesterday.

The briefing has begun. Víðir and Þórólfur begin by wishing Icelanders a happy Icelandic Sign Language day, in sign language. Víðir mentions rumours and misinformation concerning vaccination proceedings and advises caution in spreading rumours that can get people’s hopes up. Víðir says authorities felt the nation’s disappointment when the negotiations for a nationwide vaccination study with Pfizer didn’t pan out, but there is no shortcut out of the pandemic.

Þórólfur takes over to review the data. Nobody tested positive for the virus yesterday, neither domestically nor at the border. 11 are in hospital due to COVID-19, but none of the patients have an active infection. In the past week we had three test positive domestically and 17 at the border, six of which were active infections, says Þórólfur. We can say that our efforts both domestically and at the border have proven successful.

There have been fewer travellers arriving from abroad recently, and the percentage testing positive has been around 0.5% in the past week. In order to protect that success, we’re considering how best to stop new infections from entering the country. The Minister of Health will receive recommendations on further border regulations from the Chief Epidemiologist in the coming days.

Vaccinations with Iceland’s first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have begun. In light of discussion of the quality of that vaccine, Þórólfur states that after two injections, the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine is between 80-90%. This is just slightly lower than the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which boast more than 90% efficacy.

Þórólfur goes over the informal negotiations that took place with Pfizer, stressing that authorities were kept informed of the proceedings at all times. At a meeting last week, it became clear that Iceland had too few cases for such a study to yield useful results. Pfizer’s decision wasn’t final, but a final answer is expected this week.

Þórólfur regrets the amount of rumours concerning the negotiations. Þórólfur says Icelandic authorities also considered the moral justification for “jumping the line” that a mass study would constitute, and concluded that it was not morally correct for Iceland to take part in such a study unless it would provide data that was globally useful. Þórólfur states that such a study would only have been undertaken if it would have produced scientific data that could benefit the rest of the world.

If such a study would have taken place, it would have followed all normal [legal] procedures in place to ensure the safety and morality of scientific research. Authorities were criticised for not keeping the public informed about the details of the study. Þórólfur points out that the study was in early hypothetical stages and therefore it was impossible to discuss details such as informed consent and scientific benefit.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur has no information on vaccine distribution schedules after March. Communication with Moderna indicates that their current distribution schedule through the end of March will stand.

Víðir has no further information on two US citizens reported to have broken quarantine regulations. He refers the enquiry to the police.

Þórólfur is asked about further relaxing restrictions domestically. He replies that he is considering easing restrictions sooner than scheduled if case numbers remain low. Þórólfur states that authorities’ focus right now is on ensuring no infections cross the border. If we were to ease restrictions further domestically, we need to make sure infections don’t leak through from abroad, he says. Authorities are honing their tools when it comes to verifying information given by travellers such as phone numbers and quarantine addresses. Authorities are also considering requiring certain certificates from travellers. If officials doubt a traveller will respect quarantine regulations, it is possible to require them to quarantine in an official government-run hotel.

Þórólfur is asked about how and whether individuals and businesses can plan the summer. Will it be possible to hold festivals? He states that the only certainty is that summer will come. We must wait and see how vaccine distribution will play out before the summer. He adds that if Iceland continues to have so few infections, authorities will strive to keep restrictions as light as possible domestically. At the moment, Þórólfur is pretty hopeful that that will be the case.

Þórólfur is asked about Iceland’s decision to negotiate vaccine contracts through the EU. He states that this has been discussed before and that he can’t see what advantage a tiny island nation like Iceland would have negotiating on its own with giant pharmaceutical producers. The discussions with Pfizer support that view, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur discusses border restrictions after May 1, states that there are several possibilities and many variables. Þórólfur: The only thing we know and the only thing we can do at this point is to keep infections low and continue with vaccination efforts. That’s our mission for the coming weeks and months.

Þórólfur is asked about different ways the virus spreads and if medical authorities are rethinking the way they combat the SARS-CoV-2 virus regarding the relative likelihood of droplet, contact, and airborne transmission. Þórólfur contests the reporter’s assertion that contact transmission is unlikely and that airborne transmission is more likely in the case of SARS-CoV-2. He encourages the public to ventilate spaces well but says that doesn’t diminish the importance of other preventative methods [handwashing, distancing].

Þórólfur is not ready to disclose details of what he would recommend for the next phase of relaxing restrictions.

DeCode CEO Kári Stefánsson has stated that he doesn’t believe the government’s goal of vaccinating a majority of the population will be reached until next autumn but Þórólfur states that he is more optimistic. Vaccine production will likely ramp up during the spring and vaccination goals should be met by the summer if nothing unexpected happens, says Þórólfur.

When asked about the threat of new variants, Þórólfur mentions that increased analysis of new variants is bringing new information to light, and it’s a risk that needs to be taken into consideration.

Þórólfur is asked about how vaccination will be organised once priority groups have been vaccinated. It will probably be easiest to call people in based on age, he says. A few different scenarios are possible but vaccine availability will likely dictate the plans. For example, if many doses became available at once, authorities may consider vaccinating younger age groups first (once all priority groups are vaccinated). Though they are less likely to get seriously ill, there are indications they spread the virus more than older individuals.

Víðir ends the meeting by asking the public to be optimistic and keep up the good work. The briefing has ended.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Monday, February 15.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Relaxed Restrictions Are Not Invitation to Let Loose, Say Authorities

rögnvaldur ólafsson

Though domestic restrictions were relaxed in Iceland yesterday, the country’s authorities have emphasised to the public that the changes are not an invitation to throw parties. In a briefing in Reykjavík today, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson stated that although Iceland has had success in containing the pandemic locally, it takes very little for another wave to start. Authorities continue to examine possibilities for tightening border restrictions to protect domestic success in containing the pandemic.

Obstacles to Tightening Border Regulations

At the briefing, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason expressed his continued concern at the rising rates of COVID-19 infection being detected at the Icelandic border. While a few weeks ago, below one per cent of travellers were testing positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now the daily figure is usually above one per cent and some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive, Þórólfur stated.

Icelandic authorities are concerned that the so-called British strain of SARS-CoV-2, considered more infectious than previous strains, could cause another local wave of infection. So far, 37 have been diagnosed with that strain in Iceland, of which 33 were arriving travellers. The remaining 4 had close ties to those travellers.

Triple Testing a Possibility

Though the British strain has not spread broadly into the community, the Chief Epidemiologist had proposed tightening border and quarantine restrictions, but his recommendations, including mandatory border testing, were met by legal obstacles. He has now recommended that arriving travellers be required to present PCR test results no older than 48 hours before their arrival, in addition to the current quarantine and/or testing required once in Iceland. The Health Ministry is currently reviewing that possibility.

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

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection Rögnvaldur Ólafsson. Special guest: Sigurgeir Sigmundsson, Chief Superintendent of Keflavík Airport Police. Icelandic authorities have been investigating ways to tighten pandemic restrictions at the border.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 4 new domestic cases (2 in quarantine), and 4 at the border. Total active cases: 169. 19 are in hospital due to COVID-19 and none in intensive care.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur opens by saying “we are now in unique circumstances in Iceland in that we can relax restrictions, that is not the reality in the countries around us.” Our success is due to our solidarity, but this isn’t over, Rögnvaldur continues. There are still infections in the community and very little is needed to trigger a new wave. Even though we’re relaxing restrictions, it is not meant to encourage people to gather in groups and use the additional slack to the fullest. We’re also not intending to encourage people to travel between regions, even though ski slopes are reopening. If we can’t stay focused on preventing infections, we’ll simply have to tighten restrictions again, Rögnvaldur says.

Þórólfur takes over to go over the numbers. One person has been admitted to hospital with an active infection [all others in hospital due to COVID-19 are recovering and no longer have active infections]. Few cases are being caught outside of quarantine, which is good, but we need to stay alert, Þórólfur says.

Þórólfur: it worries me how many active cases are being caught at the border. Even though our system of double testing with a 5-day quarantine has been working well, there’s still a risk of infections crossing the border. A few weeks ago, the daily percentage of positive border tests was well below one percent but now it’s usually above one percent, some planes have had as many as 10% of passengers test positive.

I had suggested to the Ministry of Health that border tests be made mandatory and the option of a 14-day quarantine be eliminated, or, if that was not possible that people be required to spend their 14-day quarantine at a quarantine hotel. The Ministry has determined that they do not have the legal authority to instate those regulations, so instead I have suggested that we require all travellers coming to Iceland to present a certificate of a negative PCR test administered no more than 48 hours prior to arrival. Travellers would still be required to undergo either 14-day quarantine or 5-day quarantine and double testing.

With this measure, the risk of cases crossing the borders and entering the community would be minimised further, and our continued domestic success protected, says Þórólfur. Þórólfur is waiting for the Ministry’s response to this recommendation of additional testing for travellers before arrival to Iceland.

The Moderna vaccinations yesterday were successful and next week, 3,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive so we can continue vaccinating priority groups. Next week, those who received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in December will receive their second dose.

Sigurgeir takes over and begins by going over the changes to border regulations since the beginning of last year due to the pandemic. Sigurgeir sends his compliments to the officers working to implement government regulations, for their hard work and for often putting themselves at risk of infection. He notes that although some have claimed otherwise, Iceland has never fully closed its borders as many other countries have done. Travel from certain countries is, however, restricted.

The rules at the border have remained unchanged since August 19, with a double test and 5-day quarantine that has proved its effectiveness, or the option of a 14-day quarantine. Sigurgeir mentions that the latest changes at the border pertain to Brexit and its challenges. Sigurgeir states that the last year, “we have learned a lot, worked hard and unity has helped us move forward.”

Sigurgeir has three announcements. First, he reminds locals that they are not permitted to pick arriving travellers up at the airport. Travellers may take taxis or the airport bus, which are governed by strict preventative and disinfection regulations. [Travellers may also drive their own car which has been parked at the airport or rent a car.]

The second announcement is for employers receiving workers from abroad. Even though border officials are very clear with their instructions, there seems to be some difficulty understanding that workers need to complete quarantine before starting work. Sigurgeir encourages employers to shoulder their social responsibility and do their best in ensuring workers arriving from abroad complete quarantine according to regulations.

The third notice is regarding travellers who choose 14-day quarantine with no testing. Border officials have convinced around 210 arriving travellers to undergo double testing instead of 14-day quarantine and many infections were detected in that group. Around 40 arriving travellers who initially refused testing were convinced to undergo border testing when it was paid for. There were over 10 infections detected in that group.

Sigurgeir says police have supported the Chief Epidemiologist’s recommendations to implement stricter regulations at the border, but the legal framework does not support them. He calls for legislation to be updated to fix this. Sigurgeir also calls for clearer regulation on how police can respond to those who refuse to comply with testing or quarantine regulations.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about the PCR test certificates and their safety and efficacy. He states that he can not certify 100% safety but it’s a way to keep infections out since his other recommendations weren’t supported by law.

Þórólfur is asked about two infections that were recently diagnosed at the National Hospital. He adds that one infection was old and no longer contagious and that you can never fully eliminate the possibility of infection, simply minimise risk. Will you be rethinking vaccine priority groups on account of the recent infections at the hospital? No, I don’t think so, if we did, we’d have to vaccinate all healthcare workers before we vaccinate high-risk groups, says Þórólfur.

Þórólfur has nothing to add on Pfizer negotiations and the possibility of a mass vaccination study in Iceland and has no details to disclose on negotiations with other vaccine producers.

At the last briefing, people were discouraged from unnecessary travel. Sigurgeir believes that locals are not going on unnecessary trips abroad though some locals went abroad for the holidays and are not returning home. Þórólfur points out that there is more information on vaccination and priority groups on the official government website for COVID-19.

Of course, there will be disagreements on who should be vaccinated first, says Þórólfur, stemming from the fact that there are currently not enough vaccines to inoculate everyone at once. Þórólfur asks the public to consider whether they genuinely want older people to be pushed further down the list for vaccination. That is unavoidable if other groups are prioritised.

Þórólfur is asked about a case of severe allergic reaction to one Moderna vaccine administered yesterday. He states that this is the first one they’ve heard of domestically even though they’ve heard news of such cases in other countries. Health authorities are aware of the possibility of allergic reactions, which is why everyone who receives the injection in Iceland is monitored for 20 minutes afterwards.

Rögnvaldur ends the meeting by reminding the public that even though authorities have relaxed domestic restrictions, they are not encouraging gatherings. This is not an excuse to throw a party. We’re all in this together.

 

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities next briefing on Monday, January 18, at 11.03am.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Domestic Regulations Relaxed Today

skiing ski lift Iceland

Updated COVID-19 regulations take effect in Iceland today, raising the gathering limit from 10 to 20 people and allowing gyms and skiing grounds to reopen. The new regulations are set to remain in effect until February 17. Icelandic authorities are investigating whether stricter border regulations such as mandatory testing for arriving passengers are supported by Icelandic law.

While the COVID-19 pandemic grows in most of its neighbouring countries, Iceland has managed to keep domestic case numbers at a minimum. Total active cases have hovered around 150 for several weeks and Iceland currently has the lowest incidence rate of all countries reported on by the European Centre for Disease Control. In a briefing on Monday, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist stated it was time to relax domestic restrictions, while expressing concern at the risk presented by the high number of cases diagnosed at the borders.

Changes to Domestic Restrictions

As of today, the national gathering limit is 20, up from a record low of 10 which has been in effect since October 31. In addition, various activities and events have been granted exceptions to this general gathering limit. Gyms are permitted to reopen at 50% capacity with certain restrictions in place. Skiing grounds may also reopen. Athletic activities for adults and children are also permitted with a maximum of 50 participants and with certain restrictions in place. Athletic competitions are also permitted without a live audience.

In performing arts, up to 50 people may rehearse and perform together for up to 100 adults and 100 children in the audience. Audience members must have assigned seating and wear masks, and no intermissions are permitted during performances. Performers are also required to wear masks whenever possible.

Funerals are also excepted from the national gathering limit and may have up to 100 guests present (children born 2005 or later are not counted within this limit). Masks are mandatory. Funeral receptions may not host more than 20 people, however.

Mask use remains mandatory in shops, on public transport, and in all situations where two-metre distancing cannot be maintained. The two-metre social distancing rule also remains in effect. Bars and clubs remain closed.

Changes to Border Restrictions

One change to border restrictions also took effect today: children returning to the country from abroad are now required to quarantine along with their parents or guardians. Children were previously not required to do so, even while residing with others in travel quarantine. Children born in 2005 or later remain exempt from border testing, barring exceptional circumstances.

All travellers entering Iceland may choose between 14-day quarantine without testing, or a border test, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test. While the vast majority of travellers opt for double testing, there have been indications of individuals in 14-day quarantine breaching regulations. Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has expressed concern that travellers arriving from abroad could spread the virus into the community, leading to a surge in domestic cases.

As a result, Icelandic authorities are considering making border testing mandatory for all travellers, or requiring those who refuse testing to serve their 14-day quarantine at government-run facilities. It remains unclear, however, whether Icelandic law supports such regulations. Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir has stated that a conclusion on the matter will be reached by the end of the week.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Regulations Relaxed Domestically, Tightened at Border

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Iceland will relax domestic COVID-19 restrictions from Wednesday, January 13 as it tightens restrictions at the border. In a briefing today, the country’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason celebrated Iceland’s success in keeping the pandemic at bay and stated it was time to relax domestic restrictions to ease the burden on individuals and businesses. He expressed concern, however, at the high number of cases being diagnosed at the border. Þórólfur has proposed tightened border restrictions that could involve mandatory border testing or quarantine in government facilities.

Gathering Limit Up to 20

Iceland will relax domestic restrictions this Wednesday, lifting the gathering limit from ten to 20 people and reopening gyms. Additional restrictions on athletic and cultural events will also be relaxed. Though the pandemic is under control domestically, a high number of COVID-19 cases are being diagnosed among travellers arriving in Iceland. Most arriving travellers undergo testing at the border, five-day quarantine, and a follow-up test. Those who refuse testing may currently undergo 14-day quarantine instead, but there have been indications of a few individuals breaching quarantine regulations while on 14-day quarantine.

Mandatory Testing or Hotel Quarantine

To prevent the spread of cases arriving from abroad, Þórólfur has recommended making border testing mandatory for all arriving passengers. The Ministry of Health is currently reviewing whether Icelandic law supports such a measure. If it does not, Þórólfur has suggested requiring those who choose 14-day quarantine stay at government-run quarantine facilities. As of Wednesday, children arriving in the country will also be required to quarantine along with their parents or guardians (they were previously not required to do so), though they will continue to be exempt from testing barring extenuating circumstances.

First Vaccines from Moderna to Arrive Tomorrow

Iceland is expected to receive 1,200 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, its first doses from the manufacturer. They will be used to complete vaccination of frontline healthcare workers in the Reykjavík capital area. Moderna is expected to send an additional 1,200 doses to Iceland every two weeks until the end of March. Iceland is scheduled to receive an additional 5,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer this month.

Below is a lightly-edited transcription of Iceland Review’s live-tweeting of today’s COVID-19 briefing.

 

On the panel: Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason, Director of Health Alma Möller, and Rögnvaldur Ólafsson, Assistant to the Director of Civil Protection. Special guest: Gylfi Þór Þorsteinsson, supervisor of Iceland’s quarantine hotels.

From January 13, arriving travellers who refuse testing at the border will be required to complete their 14-day quarantine in government facilities. Less than 1% of arriving travellers have refused border testing since it was implemented last year. Passengers will continue to have the option of undergoing double testing and five-day quarantine at a private location.

Yesterday’s numbers have been updated on covid.is. Iceland reported 3 new domestic cases yesterday (all in quarantine) and 17 at the border. Total active cases: 143. 20 in hospital, none in ICU.

The briefing has begun. Rögnvaldur begins by disclosing that on Wednesday, the pandemic risk colour code will likely be lowered from red to orange. Þórólfur takes over and states that the situation over the weekend was good, few diagnoses and most in quarantine at the time of diagnosis. We’re still seeing high numbers of cases at the border, says Þórólfur. There were 17 yesterday, most of them were legal residents of Iceland just as border cases have generally been. Just over 140 active cases are in isolation. None of those in hospital due to COVID-19 have an active infection.

I’m happy to see so few domestic cases and especially how few test positive out of quarantine, but I’m still worried about the number of people testing positive at the border, says Þórólfur. In light of the situation, I have presented recommendations to the Minister of Health to ease restrictions domestically. Updated infection prevention regulations take effect January 13. The actions taken have proven successful at keeping the pandemic at bay and that’s why I think it’s time to allow sports, culture and businesses to get back to normal. Þórólfur emphasises that relaxed restrictions are not an encouragement for people to gather in groups. “We must keep up our personal infection prevention.”

I have sent recommendations to the Minister suggesting that border testing be made mandatory. If that’s not possible, I recommend everyone who chooses the 14-day quarantine (instead of testing) be required to stay at quarantine hotels. Children arriving in the country will be required to quarantine with their parents from January 13. [Children were previously not required to quarantine.]

I encourage locals to not travel abroad if they don’t have a pressing need to do so, says Þórólfur. The pandemic is rising in countries abroad and people can get sick and bring infections to the country when they return.

Þórólfur goes over the numbers of vaccine doses scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks. 1,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine are expected to arrive tomorrow. They will be used to complete vaccination of frontline healthcare workers in the Reykjavík capital area. Following that, Iceland will receive 1,200 doses from the manufacturer every other week until the end of March. They will be used to vaccinate the country’s older generations. The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to receive conditional market authorisation in January and the Janssen vaccine sometime after, the distribution schedules will likely be made available shortly thereafter.

Alma takes over and goes over the investigation of four deaths following COVID-19 vaccinations at nursing homes. The investigation is performed in three stages. It involves a thorough investigation of patients’ medical history and nursing home death statistics. Nothing points to suspicious events or an increase in deaths due to vaccination. The Directorate of Health has also sent requests for data to other Scandinavian countries and they report no suspicious increase in deaths following vaccinations either. Alma stresses the importance of monitoring vaccine side effects as it’s a new drug on the market.

Gylfi takes over to discuss the country’s official quarantine hotels. The Red Cross has operated five quarantine hotels throughout the pandemic, 3 in Reykjavík, 1 in Akureyri and 1 in Egilsstaðir. Right now, there’s only one quarantine hotel in active use [in Reykjavík], but it just filled up so another one will be opened later today. Around 1,200 people have stayed in quarantine hotels in Iceland in the past year, around 530 of them had active COVID-19 infections. Red Cross volunteers have been assisting at the quarantine hotels and they should be thanked for their efforts, says Gylfi.

The panel opens for questions. Þórólfur is asked about tightened restrictions at the border. Are they supported by Icelandic law? Þórólfur points to the Health Ministry, which issues regulations according to laws in effect.

Gylfi is asked about people who will be required to stay at quarantine hotels because they object to being tested at the borders. He does not think many people will opt for staying at a quarantine hotel or that it will be problematic to carry out.

Þóróflur is asked about vaccination distribution and political criticism of Iceland’s decision to acquire vaccines through the EU. He does not think that was a mistake and points to the Ministry of Health for further information.

This morning, it was reported that direct negotiations with other vaccine producers were ongoing and Þóróflur was asked about the status of those negotiations. He says informal discussions are ongoing with several parties but there is nothing to disclose yet.

Gylfi is asked to describe conditions in quarantine hotels. He states that people are isolated in their rooms and receive 3 meals per day and basic services. The volunteers try to supply human interaction to the extent that it is possible but it’s “no celestial stay.”

Are you making any other efforts to get vaccines than through the EU? Þórólfur replies that authorities are trying to accelerate the process as much as possible and also to supply valid scientific data to vaccine production. Þórólfur adds that he is not personally aware of all of the government’s efforts regarding vaccine acquisition but it is being worked on.

Þórólfur states that border testing has been instrumental in curbing the spread of the pandemic in Iceland. “If we hadn’t done that, things would have been much much worse.” How it will be this summer, following some vaccination, we can’t say for sure, and that’s the research we want to do and have been presenting to vaccine producers, says Þórólfur. The more people we vaccinate, the more we can relax restrictions, says Þórólfur.

How many infections can be traced to New Year’s celebrations on the one hand and Christmas on the other? Þórólfur says very few, we’ve had very few infections recently.

Rögnvaldur takes over to close the briefing: as Þóróflur says, we hope new restrictions will make life easier for people and companies. But they are not a message that we can go back to normal or throw parties. “Don’t fall into the trap of trying to interpret the rules to make them fit what you want to do,” says Rögnvaldur. If we start behaving like we did before the pandemic, the cases will go up again and we’ll have to tighten the rules again. “We know how this works and what we have to do. Let’s wash our hands and keep our distance, we’re all in this together.” The briefing has ended.

Iceland Review will live-tweet authorities’ next COVID-19 briefing on Thursday, January 14.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Strict Requirements for Recovery Certificates at Border

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

Since last Thursday, travellers arriving in Iceland from abroad have been able to eschew quarantine and testing by presenting certificates proving COVID-19 recovery. RÚV reports that not all arriving passengers have the strict requirements straight, however. Of 14 certificates presented by travellers last Thursday, two were rejected, while five of the ten certificates presented by travellers on Friday were rejected.

All travellers arriving in Iceland are required to undergo 14-day quarantine; or testing at the airport, five-day quarantine, and a second, follow-up test. Since Thursday, passengers who present an official certificate proving they have recovered from COVID-19 are exempted from testing and quarantine upon arrival. The requirements for the certificate are quite specific, however.

Only Certificates from EEA/EFTA Area Accepted

According to the Directorate of Health, border officials will accept both positive PCR-test results for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 that are older than 14 days, as well as a certificate showing presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 measured by ELISA serologic assay. Only certificates including documented results from a laboratory within the EEA/EFTA-area or a confirmation from the Chief Epidemiologist in Iceland will be accepted and all certificates must be in English, Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. Clinical diagnoses are not deemed valid.

Certificates may be in paper or electronic format and will be evaluated by border control staff. If staff are unsure of the validity of a certificate, they will consult a healthcare worker. The final decision is at the discretion of the Chief Epidemiologist. If a passenger presents a document that is deemed invalid, the passenger must undergo 14-day quarantine or double testing with 5-day quarantine, as other passengers. Certificates have been rejected in recent days for differing reasons, including that they were not in one of the accepted languages, they were issued outside the EEA/EFTA, or they indicated a negative test result but not a positive COVID-19 test result followed by recovery.

Complete information on certificate requirements is available on the website of Iceland’s Directorate of Health.

Icelanders Come Home for the Holidays

An increasing number of travellers is entering Iceland these days, mostly Icelanders returning home for the holidays. December 18 and 19 are expected to be the busiest travel days as far as arrivals to Iceland are concerned. Authorities have stated that December 18 is the last possible day to arrive in Iceland if travellers wish to be out of quarantine by Christmas Eve.

No New Community-Transmitted Infections This Weekend

keflavik airport COVID-19 testing

There were no new cases of community-transmitted COVID-19 infections in Iceland on Friday or Saturday, RÚV reports, and significantly fewer people are currently in quarantine due to the virus.

Three people tested positive for COVID-19 at the border on Saturday, at least one of which was an old, inactive infection.

Two hundred and seventy-four people were in quarantine on Saturday. This is a significant drop from the 441 people who had been in quarantine only the day before. Such precautions were taken after a soccer player who returned from the US in mid-June tested positive for the virus days after arriving home, even though her initial border screening came back negative.

A total of 1,794 people were tested for COVID-19 at the Icelandic border on Saturday, the largest number of border tests to have been given in a single day thus far.