I shut down schools be­cause I pan­icked, ad­mits Nor­way’s PM

The Sunday Telegraph - - Coronaviru­s - By Richard Or­ange in Malmo

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’

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