Restrictions set to change "but end in sight"
The plan is worded in no uncertain terms as part of a government statement explaining the harder temporary border controls announced yesterday: “All restrictions domestically will be cancelled when a majority of adults have been protected with at least the first dose of vaccine.”
Under current plans, 67 percent of people in Iceland over the age of 16 could have received their first dose by 1st June, and everybody in that group by 1st July.
The only certainty in the pandemic is uncertainty, however, and many plans have changed at short notice over the past year.
Iceland is currently using vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. 4,800 doses of the single-dose Janssen vaccine are expected to arrive this month for the first time, but no decision has yet been made on whether, or when, they will be used. Pfizer plans to provide Iceland with 244,000 doses in May, June, and July, and Moderna 21,120 in the same period. The other two manufacturers are yet to confirm for the next three months.
Chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason last night called the government announcement “bold”, but said he agrees with it and has long called for such an announcement. He told RÚV the first dose offers protection against serious illness and that the risk is manageable while people wait for their second doses. “At some point we need to relax, and this is a good announcement,” he said.
Two outbreaks that are ongoing this week are a cause for concern, he added; saying stricter restrictions may be needed in the short-term once again. If that is the case, pre-schools would not be exempted on this occasion. The next few days remain crucial.
More restrictions in the meantime
Þórólfur also said he is pleased with the bill submitted to Aþingi last night that will, if it passes, allow the authorities to force people arriving from high risk European countries (with an infection rate over 1,000 per 100,000) to spend their five days’ quarantine at a quarantine hotel. He said the bill is in line with what he has been calling for.
Four or five European countries have regions with infection rates over 1,000, and several others with a rate between 750 and 1,000. People arriving in Iceland from these countries would also be forced to use quarantine hotels unless they apply for an exemption to quarantine at home at least two days before they travel to Iceland.
Each country’s worst-affected state or region dictates its colour-coding in Iceland. As a result, all arrivals from Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and France would be forced to use the quarantine hotels as things stand today.
The change only applies to EU/EEA countries, as travellers from outside the Schengen area are not currently admitted to Iceland unless they are fully vaccinated or can prove they have had COVID-19 and recovered. Such people, from inside and outside Schengen, are exempt from five-day quarantine anyway.
The bill also contains a provision to ban unneccessary travel to Iceland from the highest-risk countries. The definition of 'necessary' can be hard to standardise, however, and Þórólfur says he believes the provision would only be used in extreme circumstances.
The bill does not enjoy universal political support, but does appear to enjoy sufficient support, across party lines. If true, it could potentially be fast-tracked into law before the end of today.
The bill’s supporting documents point out that police have taken on 118 cases so far of quarantine breaches. 24 of them have been this year, and all 2021 cases so far have been related to people breaching quarantine five days or less after entering (or re-entering) Iceland.
Both large group outbreaks currently underway are related to people who broke quarantine. The government wants to restrict and discourage all unnecessary travel to Iceland from the highest-risk countries.
Tourism minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir says the new restrictions, and delay in introducing quarantine-free travel from the lowest-risk European countries, are not a major blow to the tourism industry. This is partly because interest in visiting Iceland is growing fastest in countries with the highest rates of vaccination (including the USA), and fully-vaccinated passengers are already exempt from quarantine, and also because there are currently no “green” countries in Europe anyway. By June, there might be.
All passengers who are not fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 currently have to quarantine for five days between their two border tests. The main change the government bill proposes is making some do so (for free) at a quarantine hotel, rather than at home or a hotel of their choosing.