Will Submit a Revised Decriminalisation Bill this Autumn

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson

Iceland’s Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson says he will submit a revised bill to decriminalise possession of illegal substances in small quantities, RÚV reports. Willum has faced criticism for withdrawing his decriminalisation bill from Parliament’s spring agenda. He says the bill is now being reviewed by a group that includes specialists on the matter.

Read More: Disappointment as Health Minister Shelves Decriminalisation Bill

MPs and rights organisations have criticised the Minister’s decision to drop the bill from Alþingi’s spring agenda. Willum says that the working group will collect data, define terminology, and better organise the issue. They are expected to finish their work by the end of this month. He added that while there has not been consensus on the bill within Parliament, he believes the working group will help solve existing disagreements.

“I have put the matter into a very broad consultation, which is what is often called for, and then I intend to introduce it in the autumn session, which is only five months away,” the Health Minister stated.

Disappointment as Health Minister Shelves Decriminalisation Bill

Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has received criticism for shelving a bill that would have decriminalised possession of illegal drugs in small amounts. Kristín Davíðsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Red Cross’ harm reduction team, says the Minister’s decision to take the bill off Parliament’s calendar is a big disappointment that will negatively impact at-risk populations.

“I have to admit that this somewhat surprised me, I didn’t expect it. It seemed to us that there was a certain momentum in the whole community in support of decriminalisation,” Kristín told RÚV. “We have seen a big change just in the nation’s opinion. Around 60% of the nation describes itself as supportive of decriminalisation today. So I found it sad, first and foremost.”

Complicates operation of safe injection site

Iceland legalised safe injection sites in 2020, but it wasn’t until earlier this month that the Red Cross opened the country’s first: a mobile site that is stationed in downtown Reykjavík between 10:00 PM and 4:00 AM, while shelters are closed. The site provides clients 18 years of age and older with sterilised needles, helps them avoid overdosing, and even provides warm socks, hats, and gloves to those who need them.

The regulations on safe injection sites permits clients to carry illegal substances in small doses. However, it complicates the site’s operation if those same clients can be arrested for possession at a certain distance from the safe injection vehicle, Kristín says. “And of course it’s just never good when things are set up in this way. And especially not concerning this group. This is a very broken-down group that has a hard time trusting, has a hard time trusting the system. I think it’s incredibly important to erase any kind of doubt just in order to foster increased safety and trust in this group.”

Iceland to Lift All COVID Restrictions on Friday

Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir

There will be no more COVID-19 restrictions in Iceland or at its borders as of Friday, Iceland’s Health Minister has just announced. Iceland’s remaining restrictions, including a 200-person gathering limit, will be lifted on Thursday night at midnight. Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson stated that those who are sick are still encouraged to stay at home.

Willum announced the restrictions in an informal press conference just after 1:00 PM, following a cabinet meeting, where he says the decision was unanimous among ministers. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated in the press conference that the lifting of restrictions is in line with recommendations from the Chief Epidemiologist.

The current border regulation has been in effect since October 1, 2021 and will expire at midnight Thursday. Travellers will no longer be required to register prior to arrival or to present vaccination certificates. Unvaccinated travellers will no longer be required to be tested and quarantine for five days.

Katrín pointed out that around 110,000 residents of Iceland, of the total population of some 370,000, have already had COVID-19, according to official numbers. However, research suggests the true number is significantly higher. “The virus is still with us, and we know that many people will still get infected,” Katrín stated, adding that workplaces and communities will be affected, “but we believe we can live with the virus.”

Both Willum and Katrín emphasised that people are still encouraged to test and isolate if they are sick, though access to PCR tests has now been limited. Asked about strain on the healthcare system, Willum stated: “The going will be tough for some weeks moving forward,” due to covid infections among both patients and staff disrupting services.

Asked whether COVID-19 measures could be reimposed in the future, Katrín stated: “We are always ready for the possibility that a new variant could emerge,” and added that authorities would continue to monitor the state of the pandemic domestically and globally.

No More One-Metre Distancing Requirement for Seated Events

Harpa concert hall

Iceland’s Health Minister has lifted the requirement of one-metre distancing at seated events, such as concerts and performing arts events. The decision was made in consultation with the Chief Epidemiologist. Event organisers had complained that the rule was unnecessarily cumbersome and stricter than requirements in other types of venues, such as bars and restaurants.

“This is a big and important change,” Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson stated. “This changes the conditions for holding events as it will be possible to utilise all seats at events as long as there are not more than 500 people per compartment.” As previously, mask use is still required at all seated events.

Performing arts venues are still not permitted to sell alcohol during events. Some event organisers have protested that regulation, as alcohol sales are permitted at bars, clubs, and restaurants.

Health Minister to Relax COVID Restrictions Once Hospital Gives Go-Ahead

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson

Iceland’s Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson is working on a plan for lifting COVID-19 restrictions and hopes to present it by the end of this week, Vísir reports. Current domestic restrictions, including a 10-person gathering limit and closure of all bars and clubs, are valid until February 2. The situation at the National University Hospital is improving, with data showing COVID-19 illness is shorter and less severe than in previous waves.

“Thankfully the development in this pandemic has been and this wave that the numbers are working with us and we’re always looking at the healthcare system in particular in that respect, that we can handle the situation and are providing all healthcare services in the country,” Willum stated. New data shows that the hospitalisation rate and the average length of time COVID-19 patients spend in hospital have both reduced significantly. The average length of time the COVID-19 ward has to monitor patients isolating at home has also shortened.

Before relaxing restrictions, hospital must lower alert phase

Iceland’s National University Hospital declared an emergency phase on December 28 due to strain from COVID-19 cases among patients and staff. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management also declared an emergency phase earlier this month due to the pandemic. Authorities have since taken measures to ease strain on the hospital, including by negotiating a contract with a private healthcare clinic to address staffing issues.

Willum stressed that the Civil Protection Department and Hospital would need to lower their emergency phase before domestic restrictions could be relaxed. “As soon as we see that happen, then we can loosen restrictions,” he stated, adding that he expects the loosened restrictions to go further than raising the gathering limit to 20.

The Minister did, however, stress the importance of lifting restrictions in stages.

New Contract With Speech Pathologists to Shorten Waitlists for Children

speech therapy pathology

Icelandic Health Insurance has extended its service contract with self-employed speech pathologists by six months and eliminated the prerequisite of two years of work experience, a change for which speech pathologists have been campaigning. The coming six-month period will be utilised to streamline and improve speech therapy services, including by implementing quality indicators, prioritisation, and more to ensure clients receive the best possible service.

Speech pathology is a healthcare service mostly used by children in Iceland, and waitlists for services have been lengthy in recent years. RÚV reported this month that around 900 children were on a waiting list to receive speech therapy. Until now, the cost of therapy was only covered by public health insurance if a speech pathologist had two years of work experience. This left many newly-graduated speech pathologists without work, while children who could not afford to pay for private services were placed on long waitlists.

“This is an important step,” stated Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson. “I have high hopes that a new contract will be successfully made six months from now that will bring this important service up to a good level for those who need it, and those are children for the most part.”

María Heimisdóttir, CEO of Icelandic Health Insurance, celebrated the contract extension and the fact that funds had been secured so that the two-year experience requirement could be repealed.

COVID-19 in Iceland: Domestic Restrictions to Continue Unchanged

Iceland’s current domestic restrictions, including a 20-person gathering limit, will be extended for an additional three weeks, Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson announced following a cabinet meeting this morning. Authorities will monitor developments closely in the coming days, Willum stated, to determine whether further measures are necessary to contain the wave of infection. The country’s goal should be to bring daily infections down to 500 in order to protect the healthcare system, Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason has stated.

There are currently over 10,000 active COVID-19 infections in Iceland and over 10,000 others are in quarantine. The country has reported around 1,000 daily cases since late December, its largest wave since the start of the pandemic. Iceland’s domestic restrictions were tightened on December 23, 2021 due to rising infection rates, and include a general gathering limit of 20, two-metre social distancing, and mandatory mask use in shops, on public transport, and in services requiring contact. Restaurants, bars, and clubs must close by 10:00 PM, while swimming pools and gyms may not operate above 50% capacity. These restrictions, set to expire on January 12, have now been extended until early February.

Delta variant still straining hospital

Willum emphasised that the coming days were critical in the development of this wave of infection, particularly in ensuring the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that while evidence showed the Omicron variant caused less serious illness than previous variants, the sheer number of cases is nevertheless straining the healthcare system. Furthermore, the Delta variant continues to be widespread in Iceland, causing serious illness and hospitalisation at higher rates than Omicron.

1,000 daily cases until February

Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason and Head Physician of Iceland’s COVID-19 Ward Már Kristjánsson met with the Parliamentary Welfare Committee this morning, where they provided MPs with the latest data and projections on the developing wave of infection. Modelling shows that daily infections will remain around 1,000 until February, and around 90 COVID-19 patients will be in hospital by the end of the month, with 20 of them requiring intensive care. Þórólfur stated that daily infections would need to be brought down to 500 in order to protect the healthcare system. 

Þórólfur said that booster shots and COVID-19 infection would eventually increase COVID-19 immunity in Iceland, but it would take weeks or even months for the effects to make an impact, even if the situation remains unchanged.

New Covid Rules: Gathering Limits Reduced to 20 Persons

Health Minister Willum Þór Þórsson has introduced new infection prevention restrictions, following a government meeting that started at 9:30 this morning.

The changes to the current regulations include a gathering limit of 20 persons. Swimming pools and gyms are required to cut down the number of visitors by half and negative rapid test results will be required at larger events. A 2-metre social distancing rule will also replace the current 1-metre rule.

The Chief Epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason, suggested the new rules last night. He had also advised that Christmas breaks from schools at all education levels should be prolonged to slow down the spread of the virus. However, the Health Minister turned down the advice, stating that the ministers responsible for education would monitor the situation over the next few days before making a final decision.

The new rules will not affect the opening hours of shops, bars and restaurants. Restrictions at the national borders will remain unchanged.

Cases have been rising rapidly in the past days, reaching an all-time high of 286 cases nationwide yesterday. Thousands of people will therefore spend Christmas in quarantine or isolation.

Experts have warned that the Omicron variant will spread quickly over the next weeks, resulting in a sharp rise in cases. Már Kristjánsson, head physician of the Infectious Diseases Ward at Landsspitali University Hospital said in an interview with RUV yesterday that if the current development continues, daily cases may rise to 600.

The new rules will take effect at midnight tomorrow, lasting for at least three weeks.

Infection Rate of Unvaccinated 13 Times Higher

vaccination Laugardalshöll

Unvaccinated people in Iceland are 13 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, RÚV reports. Half of all hospitalisations in Iceland’s current wave of infection have been unvaccinated people, who represent less than 24% of the population and less than 10% of those eligible for vaccination.

Over 90% of eligible Icelanders, or those 12 years of age and over, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Over 110,000 people have also received a booster shot, or nearly a third of the total population of 370,000. Vaccination rates vary somewhat between age demographics. Nearly 100% of those 70 and older are fully vaccinated in Iceland (most with booster shots as well). The figure drops to just over 90% for those 50-59 years of age, to around 85% for those 40-49, and to roughly 75% for those 16-39. Nearly 70% of children 12-15 years old in Iceland have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Official data from Iceland shows the difference in 14-day incidence rates by age group and vaccination status. These figures show a consistently higher rate of infection among children and adults that are not fully vaccinated as compared to those who are. The current incidence rate for adults who are not fully vaccinated is 780.4, as compared to 465.8 for fully vaccinated adults. The current incidence rate of those who have received a booster shot is just 59.8. Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist has stated that widespread booster shots could help Iceland reach herd immunity.

Iceland’s new Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson received his booster shot yesterday. “I just do what the scientists have told us and encouraged us to do. That helps the fight,” he stated on the occasion. “But we have to respect the point of view of those who, for all sorts of reasons, are afraid of it or will not get vaccinated.”

COVID-19 in Iceland: Domestic Restrictions Extended for Two Weeks

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Iceland’s current COVID-19 domestic restrictions, including a 200-person gathering limit and one-metre social distancing, will be extended for an additional two weeks, Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir announced at a press conference this afternoon. Though the nation is experiencing a record rate of COVID-19 infection, its high vaccination rate is preventing serious illness and hospitalisation. The Chief Epidemiologist and Prime Minister agreed that was the reasoning tighter domestic restrictions were not currently necessary.

The current domestic restrictions due to COVID-19 were imposed on July 24 and include a 200-person gathering limit, one-metre social distancing, and mask use where distancing cannot be ensured, such as in hair salons and on public transportation. The measures were set to expire this Friday, but in a memorandum to the Health Minister, Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist recommended they be extended for an additional two weeks.

The measures will remain in effect until August 27, 2021.

A live-tweeting of the briefing in English is available here.