I shut down schools because I panicked, admits Norway’s PM
ON WEDNESDAY night, Erna Solberg, Norway’s prime minister, appeared on television to make a startling admission: she had panicked. Some, even most, of the country’s tough measures imposed in lockdown now looked like steps too far. “Was it necessary to close schools?” she mused. “Perhaps not.”
It was a pre-emptive step only a leader with Mrs Solberg’s folksy, downto-earth style could get away with. “I probably took many of the decisions out of fear,” she admitted, reminding viewers of the terrifying images that had flooded their screens from Italy.
She is not the first in Norway to conclude that closing schools, making everyone work from home, and limiting gatherings to a maximum of five people might have been excessive.
As far back as May 5, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) reported that at the time the lockdown was imposed on March 12, Norway’s reproduction number – the number of people each infected person on average infects – had already fallen to 1.1. It slipped under 1.0 on March 19.
“Our assessment... is that we could possibly have achieved the same effects and avoided some of the impacts by not locking down, but by instead keeping open but with infection control measures,” Camilla Stoltenberg, NIPH’s director general said.
No one doubts Norway’s success in bringing the pandemic under control. On Friday, there were just 30 people in hospital with coronavirus and five on a ventilator. Only one person had died all week. The per capita death toll is now 44 per million people, just over a tenth of that seen in neighbouring Sweden, where 4,395 people have died.
But this success has come at a cost. A committee charged with carrying out a cost-benefit analysis into the lockdown measures last month estimated that they had together cost Norway 27billion krone (£2.3billion) every month. With only 0.7 per cent of Norwegians infected, according to NIPH estimates, there is almost no immunity.
The expert committee concluded last Friday that the country should avoid lockdown if there was a second wave of infections. “We recommend a much lighter approach,” Steinar Holden, an Oslo University economics professor and the committee’s head, said.
“We should start with measures at an individual level, which is what we have now, and if there’s a second wave, we should have measures in the local area where this occurs.”
Norway’s current strategy – using testing, contact tracing and home isolation to keep the level of infections down without heavy restrictions – would be best, the report concluded. But if this “keep down” strategy fails to prevent a surge in cases, a “brake strategy”, which aims to suppress the rate of transmission but not bring it below 1.0, would be preferable to a lockdown.
“If it’s necessary to have very strict restrictions for a long time, then the costs are higher than letting the infection go through the population,” Mr Holden said. According to the report, a brake strategy would cost as much as 234billion krone less than an “unstable keep-down” scenario, if it is assumed that those infected gain immunity and that no vaccine is developed until 2023. But it would also lead to a little over 3,000 additional deaths.
One measure that no one thinks should be reimposed is school closures. Mr Holden’s committee estimated that the measure had cost 6.7billion kroner a month, while at best having “little impact” on the spread of infection. NIPH suggested closures may have even increased the spread.
Margrethe Greve-Isdahl, NIPH’s expert on infections in schools, said that if schools had not been closed, they could have played a role in informing people in immigrant communities of hygiene and social distancing rules.
“They can teach their parents and grandparents, so at least for some of these hard-to-reach minorities, there might be a positive effect from keeping kids in school,” she said.
Norway, it seems, has already decided a second lockdown is not the way to go. Its prime minister is ultimately unrepentant though. “I think it was right to do it at the time. Based on the information we had, we took a precautionary strategy,” she said.
‘If it is necessary to have very strict restrictions for a long time, then the costs are higher than letting the infection go through the population’