Isolated Iceland utilizes testing and location to keep virus in check

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Reykjavik, Feb. 23 (BNA): Its remote location in the North Atlantic is benefiting Iceland during the pandemic. But that is not the only reason why the island currently has by far the lowest number of new infections in Europe. The trend also raises cautious hopes in its tourism industry.

 

Iceland is Europe's answer to New Zealand - not only because of its green landscapes and natural wonders.

 

Like New Zealand, Iceland appears to have tackled the coronavirus pandemic better than many other countries. The North Atlantic nation is the undisputed leader in Europe in terms of keeping infections down, partly due to its remote location - but also due to a consistent strategy, according to Deutsche press agency (dpa).

 

"Our fight against the pandemic has gone better than we expected," Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said.

 

The Icelandic strategy - comprising comprehensive testing, fast test results, consistent contact tracing and clear quarantine and self-isolation requirements - may have shown better results than the strict measures in other countries, she said.

 

"That's the key to our success: easy access to tests for people, tracing of infections and the scientific approach," Jakobsdottir added.

 

This strategy is reflected in an extremely low rate of new infections: After a peak in mid-October, the numbers fell rapidly.

 

Recently, health authorities reported there was not a single new domestic coronavirus case for six days in a row, and only a handful of cases found in travellers arriving to the country.

 

With a 14-day incidence rate of just 6.59 per 100,000 inhabitants, Iceland is unmatched, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

 

Other Nordic countries have significantly higher rates: Norway at 66, Finland at 88, and Denmark at 100 - even though they have the lowest numbers in the European Economic Area. Germany's rate of 141 is far higher.

 

Corona-related deaths in Iceland during the recent period: nil.

 

Iceland's isolated location in the North Atlantic of course offers an advantage, and its population only numbers about 360,000 inhabitants - comparable to many single cities in Europe.

 

The country's success was also attributed to strict measures, tests, contact tracing and the population's high degree of trust in the country's experts.

 

As an island state, border controls are easier. Germany for instance has nine neighbours and several international airports. Travellers to Iceland arrive almost exclusively via Keflavik Airport near Reykjavik.

 

As of Friday, travellers arriving by ship or plane have to present a negative coronavirus test that is no more than 72 hours old for entry. In addition, there is an obligatory test on arrival, five to six days of quarantine and another test after this quarantine period.

 

Quarantining is an important component of the Icelandic strategy: Everyone who has had contact with an infected person has to endure it without exception. So far, around 6,000 people in Iceland have tested positive for the virus, while roughly 46,000 have been in quarantine.

 

Icelanders have a lot of confidence in their experts. Chief epidemiologist Thorolfur Gudnason, civil defence chief Vidir Reynisson and health director Alma Moller are often referred to as the "Trinity" - and despite the strict restrictions on public life, most people heed their guidelines.

 

This has resulted in some recent benefits. Pubs, for example, were allowed to reopen this month, but like restaurants and cafes they are only allowed to serve guests at the table and must close by 10 pm. Individual training in the gym is also allowed again.

 

The maximum number of visitors to cinemas, theatres, museums, concerts and religious events was recently increased from 100 to 150.

 

Despite the favourable situation, Gudnason emphasizes that more easing of restrictions can only be gradual and careful.

 

“I don't think the virus disappeared from Iceland. I'm worried that it might be hiding somewhere,” he said at a recent press conference.

 

Test requirements and strict entry rules are allowing Iceland to perform an important balancing act for the tourism industry - welcoming tourists back into the country, while keeping new infections out.

 

One step in this direction is that travellers who can show proof of having had a coronavirus infection or a vaccination against Covid-19 can be exempt from testing and self-isolatiung.

 

The tourism sector, crucial for Iceland, experienced a severe slump in 2020: The number of foreign guests fell by more than three quarters to below 500,000.

 

It is unclear whether things will improve in 2021.

 

"I'm optimistic in the long run. We do have expectations for a certain amount of tourists to Iceland, in the summer, but we don't know if that will happen," said Prime Minister Jakobsdottir.

 

Ultimately, it depends on how fast vaccination programmes progress in Iceland and other countries.

 

A new entry system based on ECDC assessments is planned for May 1. Travellers from countries with a lower risk of infection would then be exempted from quarantining.

 


H.F. /F.K.N.