COVID-19: Interview with Njall Trausti Fridbertsson on Iceland’s approach, pandemic national response plans, and international coordination

Njall Trausti Fridbertsson, Head of the Icelandic delegation to the NATO PA, shares his views on concrete steps to strengthen international coordination, Iceland’s preventive steps to contain the pandemic, and how an effective and evidence-based National Pandemic Response Plan can help minimise the effects of the pandemic and better prepare for future crisis.

Four questions with Njall Trausti Fridbertsson:

I.    Allied efforts to provide resources and humanitarian assistance to the hardest-hit countries has been critical to help Allies and partners cope with this unprecedented crisis. Could you tell us how Iceland has used NATO structures to help others and how Iceland has benefitted from other Allies’ help over the course of the crisis?

While it has not been necessary for Iceland to make use of NATO structures in responding to the COVID-19 crisis for providing or receiving assistance, we very much welcome the NATO mechanisms in place that have proven their value in supporting the efforts of hard-hit allies and partners, such as the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC), the NATO-supported Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS), and the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA).

II.    What additional steps should NATO and Allied armed forces take to support the national and international response to the COVID-19 crisis? 

NATO’s business continuity in crisis is key, that the Alliance continues to carry out its core tasks in any situation. It has done so successfully during the COVID-19 crisis. There is important work being undertaken to address the lessons learned from the current crisis to be better prepared for the next one. Deterrence and defence, crisis management, and cooperative security are NATO’s bread and butter, and the Alliance is not a first responder in a health crisis. For the next crisis it will be important to have taken concrete steps to strengthen coordination on the international level, to make it clear who does what, and to be very clear on NATO’s added value and remit to support national crisis response measures.

III.    While every country has faced unique circumstances in the COVID-19 crisis, do you see any lessons Iceland has learnt which could be applicable to other Allies on how to address the current pandemic and future health emergencies? 

It is a great necessity for every country to have an updated response plan that is reviewed on a regular basis by key institutions and specialists. Thus, it is important for every country to have a Pandemic National Response Plan. When the highest alert level was declared in Iceland because of the coronavirus outbreak, it was done in accordance with the Pandemic National Response Plan. These measures primarily affected key institutions and companies in Iceland, so that they could take the action necessary to address the genuine threat stemming from COVID-19.

Perhaps it is one of the lessons Iceland has learnt from its Allies, but it is extremely important  for every country to begin proposed measures with a clear purpose, to ensure that the necessary infrastructure, particularly the health care system, can withstand the strain that the illness will     cause in the future. Icelandic authorities have introduced measures that are known to be effective, focusing on evidence-based measures that have a proven track record, such as quarantine at home (self-quarantine), isolation for infected persons, early diagnosing of infection, and effective information disclosure to the public.

It is also an extremely important to pledge to the community, to publish information in several languages and make it accessible.

Main measures Iceland has taken:
•    Early identification of high-risk areas
•    Quarantine requirements for all residents returning from abroad.
•    Large-scale screening for COVID-19
•    High infection tracing rate (over 95% to date)
•    Quarantine requirements for anyone who has been in contact with infected individuals.
•    Ban on larger gatherings (20-person limit, 200-person limit as of 25 May 2020)
•    University and upper secondary school closures. Limited opening of elementary schools and pre-schools.
•    Active communication with the public, including daily press briefings from the Directorate of Health and The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management.

Iceland’s specialties are reflected in the preventive steps taken by the authorities in order to contain the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus in the country. As Iceland has few entry points and the lowest population density in Europe, the country has been able to move swiftly to identify, communicate with and, where necessary, quarantine Icelandic residents. As of 1 January 2020, residents of Iceland numbered 364.134. Since 3 March, 57.187 samples have been taken and 20.103 have completed quarantine. Confirmed infections stand at 1.802 with 57% of those infected already in isolation when diagnosed.

In addition to the aforementioned, the public has been encouraged to download the contract tracing app “Rakning C-19” which helps to analyse individuals’ travel and trace their movements against those of other people when cases of infection or suspected infection arise. Prior to informed consent to share data, the Contact Tracing Team can use people’s location data, together with a conversation to identify the individuals and places that have potentially been exposed to the virus.

IV.    What role do parliamentarians play in this crisis? And what role can interparliamentary diplomacy, including within the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, play to mitigate this crisis and prepare for the next crisis?

It is important that parliamentarians take precautionary measures in their work environment, consider limiting social gatherings, and practice social distancing. It is also important that persons who are at risk with underlying health problems and therefore more vulnerable, should minimise attendance at their workplace. Therefore, videoconferences should be considered when possible. Attendance of members of parliament is of great importance as examples have shown, as the Parliament has been quite busy working on legislative proposals from the Government.

Parliament’s response plan to the COVID-19 epidemic was activated on 5 March and based on the National Pandemic Response plan. It aims to minimise the effects of the pandemic on the activities of the Althingi (national parliament of Iceland) and the parliamentary office, and to ensure an organised and coordinated response in the event of such a pandemic.

Responsibility for the implementation of the contingency plan is in the hands of the Director of the Althingi, but decisions pertaining to the formulation of parliamentary meetings, amendments, or withdrawal of a work plan are taken by the Speaker of the Althingi in consultation with the Speaker’s Committee of the Althingi and the chairpersons of parliamentary parties.
Looking forward, it is important to be prepared. Therefore, it is my opinion that in order to handle COVID-19 and other future pandemics that might occur successfully, NATO allies must synchronise their actions by showing early vigilance, put rigorous testing into effect and use digital contact tracing for active cases.

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