Iceland became one of the first European countries to start opening up society again after the second wave of Covid-19 as it reaped the rewards of having the region’s lowest infection rate.
The north Atlantic island of 360,000 people reopened bars and gyms for individuals on Monday, while more people will be allowed to attend concerts, theatre performances and religious services.
Iceland is at present the only country in Europe rated “green” by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, meaning that it has low infection rates and a test positivity rate of less than 4 per cent.
“These are cautious steps, not big ones, but we think it reflects the fact that Iceland is green,” the country’s health minister, Svandis Svavarsdottir, said when announcing the relaxation a week earlier than scheduled.
Experts say that Iceland has benefited from its relative isolation, but it has also been widely praised for its use of widespread testing and data analysis to track the spread of the virus, as well as the testing and quarantining of all arrivals. Iceland was hit relatively hard early on in the second wave of the pandemic in September and October — when it had one of the highest infection rates in Europe — but has since stemmed the spread with nearly all cases occurring in quarantine.
Thorolfur Gudnason, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, said that while the country appeared to have the virus under control for now, it had not managed to eliminate it in the community “and therefore we need to proceed carefully”.
Under the relaxed restrictions in force from Monday, bars are allowed to open until 10pm each evening. Cafés and restaurants are already open. Gyms reopened for individual training, having only been open for group sessions until now. And the limits for indoor arts performances and religious services were lifted from 100 to 150 people.
Gudnason said on Monday that authorities would consider in the coming days whether to strengthen border controls, including testing and quarantine requirements.
Norway relaxed some of its restrictions last month, but only days later was forced to bring in its heaviest restrictions of the pandemic so far after it discovered a number of cases with the more contagious variant first found in the UK. It has since eased some of the restrictions, including those on schools and shops, while in Denmark on Monday children returned to primary school for the first time since Christmas.
Infection rates are falling in many European countries, but some epidemiologists are frustrated by the relatively slow pace of vaccinations.
Gudnason said no agreement had yet been reached with Pfizer over a possible arrangement in which the US pharmaceuticals company would supply it with vaccine doses in return for patient data, similar to Israel’s agreement with the drugmaker.