Norway introduced some of its strictest measures of the Covid-19 pandemic so far as it reacted to several deaths in a town near Oslo due to the more contagious variant first discovered in the UK.
The centre-right government on Saturday ordered all shops except for food stores, pharmacies and petrol stations closed in the capital and several nearby municipalities, and moved all schools and kindergartens in the same area to the so-called red level, which means local authorities can shut them.
Authorities moved quickly after it emerged on Friday that two deaths in a care home 20km south of Oslo earlier in January involved the more contagious variant of coronavirus.
Norway has been one of the least affected countries in Europe by Covid-19 with low infection and death rates. Health authorities and the government have been credited with taking rapid decisions both to close down and reopen society.
But the latest restrictions come only five days after Norway became one of the first European countries to ease its restrictions from the first wave. Children’s sports and leisure activities that were allowed to restart on Thursday were halted again on Saturday in Oslo and nine neighbouring municipalities.
“This is a very serious situation and we must do everything we can to stop the outbreak,” Norwegian health minister Bent Hoie said, speaking from his winter cabin.
He said that the measures were the strictest since Norway initially locked down on March 12 last year and in some areas “we are going even further”.
He added: “We are doing what we can now to stop this outbreak with powerful measures, so that we can quickly regain control and ease the most intrusive restrictions. Together we have managed to beat down the virus several times, and together we can manage it again.”
Norway, with a population of 5.3m people, has the lowest death rate per capita of any European country with 544 Covid fatalities during the pandemic. That compares with 11,055 in neighbouring Sweden, which has double the population and eschewed a formal lockdown.
The current restrictions will initially last to the end of January as authorities gauge how far the variant has spread.
Some local politicians in and around Oslo have criticised health authorities for how long it has taken to test samples for the new variant. The samples that led to the lockdown were taken on January 3.
There is no curfew or bar on movement in Oslo, although Norway’s government recently asked for the legal power to introduce one if necessary.