The Sunday Telegraph

Cafe life continues and schools stay open as Iceland goes its own way

- By Thor Fanndal in Reykjavík The

You would be forgiven for thinking the tiny island nation of Iceland was being ravaged by coronaviru­s. Raw data shows the highest proportion of confirmed cases anywhere in the world – 1,300 among a population of 365,000.

But step outside into the bright spring sunshine and you won’t see ghostly quiet streets and shuttered businesses, like in Italy and Spain.

Instead the cafes, pubs and shops are doing a gentle trade, while schools remain open and travel is unhindered – even tourists are welcomed, the ones who manage to book a flight.

The reason behind the high numbers is the most aggressive Covid-19 testing regime anywhere in the world. In proportion to population, Iceland has screened five times as many as in South Korea – the poster country for a national Covid response – and 30 times as many as the UK.

At the latest count 22,195 people had been tested – six per cent of the population. 1,364 have tested positive and four people have died.

With the results, authoritie­s are able to pursue aggressive quarantine­s for those with a higher statistica­l chance of infection, to slow the spread without a nationwide shutdown.

Across the world, countries tend to have settled into two camps in fighting the virus: containmen­t or mitigation, Thorolfur Gudnason, the government’s chief epidemiolo­gist, told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s like you would choose one or the other,” he said. “Iceland is doing both.”

Mr Gudnason’s team of 60 police investigat­ors and healthcare workers act as detectives on each confirmed case, tracking down contacts.

Testing is carried out on those showing symptoms. But on top of this, a biopharma company, deCODE Genetics, has been screening random samples of the population to build the world’s most extensive study yet of how the virus behaves in a population.

Early results show 50 per cent of carriers of the virus are asymptomat­ic.

It has also revealed up to 40 mutations, or strains, of the disease.

“We can determine the geographic origin of the virus in every single [case] in Iceland,” Kari Stefansson, the founder of deCODE, says.

It claims to have traced strains back to Italy, Austria, and the US, and seven cases in particular to one undisclose­d football match in the UK.

Crucially, all the testing has meant cases are tracked, traced and isolated before spreading rapidly – thus alleviatin­g pressure on the hospitals.

So far, there is a government ban on gatherings of more than 20 people and light guidelines on social distancing.

The guidance is imposed not by force but by trust, Katrin Jakobsdott­ir, Iceland’s prime minister, told

Sunday Telegraph. “Iceland has a history of socially liberal culture,” she said. “In this case, it means to trust, not to force. We have no tradition of militarism or an army. We ask for cooperatio­n, rather than force it.”

Another part of Iceland’s success story is its readiness. “We realised at the end of 2019 that we should prepare for a pandemic,” Mr Gudnason said.

“Be it storms, avalanches, volcanic eruptions or a pandemic the system is the same. Health authoritie­s step into a well-oiled machine, highly trained infrastruc­ture and years of experience in building communicat­ion channels and trust.”

However, Vidir Reynisson, who is heading Iceland’s response, has warned against drawing too much from his country’s model, pointing out that its small size, strong channels of communicat­ion and social cohesion have played a major part.

 ??  ?? Tourists in masks walk down the main street of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik
Tourists in masks walk down the main street of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik

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