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Time to define the political role of the epidemiologist

07.12.2021 - 09:17
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 Mynd: RÚV - Samsett
Chief epidemiologist Þórólfur Guðnason says he thinks it would not be controversial for the health minister to appoint future chief epidemiologists, and that it is time for the political scope of his position to be more clearly defined. He does not believe such a change would lead to politically-motivated appointments.

The reason for Þórólfur’s comments is a proposal currently on the Samráðsgátt public consultation website for changes to the epidemiology law. Under the current law, the chief epidemiologist is appointed by the head of the Directorate of Health.

“I think this is not unusual, because the law expects the chief epidemiologist to work under the minister and submit recommendations to him. I do not interpret this that they are politically appointed. For example, the head of the Directorate of Health is appointed by the minister. They are not political appointments—have not been—as a professional assessment of applicants takes place and it is exactly the same process as other applications, whether they are under the minister or not. I don’t interpret it that way. Rather, it is better-defining the political situation of the chief epidemiologist. I think it’s about time that happened,” Þórólfur told RÚV radio this morning. 

He submitted his first set of recommendations to the new health minister on Sunday. The existing anti-contagion measures within Iceland are due to expire on Wednesday. As usual, Þórólfur refused to comment on his suggestions to the minister. His memo will likely be discussed at the cabinet meeting tomorrow, and health minister Willum Þór Þórsson will likely make an announcement afterwards. 

Willum Þór has told reporters he approves of the suggestions being made, including bringing the office of the chief epidemiologist under the ministry instead of the directorate. The proposals are partly based on an assessment from Páll Hreinsson, president of the EFTA court, at the government’s request last year. The draft bill is expected in the first half of next year. 

Part of the proposals under discussion is for a new epidemics committee to take over responsibility for making some of the recommendations for public anti-contagion measures from the chief epidemiologist. 

“I think that could be a good arrangement,” Willum Þór says. “I think it is something of a governance issue based on responsibility and communication. So I think it could well be a good outcome.” 

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