Wants to Lift Quarantine in Svalbard: “No Point in Waiting”

Smittevernlege ved Svalbard sykehus, Knut Selmer. Foto Audun Bårdseth
Infection Control Chief Medical at Svalbard Hospital, Knut Selmer, argues the quarantine should be lifted in Svalbard now. Photo: Audun Bårdset
Tourism companies in Svalbard are in despair over massive losses and request a date for reopening for tourists, just like the rest of Norway. “There is no longer any reason to maintain the quarantine”, says Svalbard’s Infection Control Chief Medical.

“Travelers from other countries than Norway are not allowed to travel to Svalbard. Norwegian tourists are strongly recommended to avoid travelling to Svalbard at the current moment as a two week long quarantine is currently mandatory for all arrivals in Svalbard. The Norwegian Directorate of Health and Norwegian authorities are generally discouraging leisure travel or travels that are not strictly necessary. This is in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

This is how travelers are met at www.visitsvalbard.no when clicking in to explore and plan their holiday. The mandatory quarantine is in force until 18:00 hrs on 18 may, with the option of prolonging by Kjerstin Askholt, the Svalbard Governor.

Requests a date

The tourism industry in Svalbard is bleeding every day now, and is in many ways in the same situation as the rest of Norway. However, what separates Svalbard from the mainland is the quarantine. Even though tourism, restaurants and bars are open, no-one will go to Svalbard in order to be quarantined for two weeks at their own expense.

Now, tourism is asking for a date to reopen Svalbard for tourists, simply in order to save lives, jobs and health.

As per today, there are no confirmed cases of corona infection in Longyearbyen

“Svalbard losing its summer season”

Brita Knudsen Dahl is Chairperson of Basecamp Explorer Spitsbergen. She despairs over the situation for tourism in Svalbard, with its still being unclear following a month of lockdown and quarantine.

She warrants a survival plan for tourism in Svalbard.

“We hear from the Svalbard Governor that they are pushing the date. At present, the date for re-evaluating the quarantine is set at 18 May. However, we do not know what will happen and all we need is a date, so that we can start planning and booking guests for the summer season, Knudsen Dahl says.

She knows that international tourists, who normally take up some 70 percent of the capacity, will not be there. In order to keep the wheels running, she will be satisfied with 50-70 percent capacity filled with Norwegians. However, in order to make that figure, tourism has to start taking orders now. Instead, they get to sit on the sideline and watch Norwegians book their holidays on the west coast or in Northern Norway without Svalbard being part of the equation.

We cannot isolate the island forever.  
Infection Control Chief Medical Knut Selmer, Svalbard Hospital

Time is running out

“The rest of Norway is open for the holidays for Norwegians, but not Svalbard. And when we request a concrete plan from the Governor, all they can say is that preparedness is challenging here”, Knudsen Dahl says and despairs.

In a worst-case scenario, the summer tourist season is lost and facilities in Svalbard are closed until February 2021. The Svalbard tourist season ends in September.

“We are very worried. If we lose the peak season in summer, we will have little or nothing to live off through the rest of the year. We have tremendous respect for preparedness and health risk work; however, we do not have any risk groups in Svalbard and a young and robust population. Time is running out for us, because it is not like people buy plane tickets to Svalbard on a whim.”

Losing competence

Brita Knudsen Dahl er styreleder i Basecamp Explorer Spitsbergen AS
Brita Knudsen Dahl is chairperson of Basecamp Explorer Spitsbergen AS. She is worried about the future of the tourism industry in Svalbard.

Knudsen Dahl also worries about seasonal workers if the situation is not clarified soon.

“Few will stay here if they do not have a job. We put a lot of time and effort into recruiting, and it takes time to train people to become good guides on a Svalbard level. I fear we will lose valuable competence and have to start over again.”

“We need a reaction from the authorities; a response, a plan, a date. Anything, so that we can start making plans!”

Infection Control Chief Medical in Svalbard, Knut Selmer, says the criteria for re-opening Svalbard are met, and he thus sees no reason to maintain the quarantine after 18 May.

“The quarantine was required when the situation was unclear and we had no transport opportunities for anyone with infection. Tomorrow, a Widerøe plane is operative in Bodø with an incubator to be used for anyone with respiratory disease, and we also have a helicopter in Tromsø as well as a Hercules plane from the Air force.”

Selmer argues that it was both right and important to halt tourism to Svalbard as the Covid-19 outbreak came.

Infection will come regardless

“But we cannot isolate the island forever. We are currently in a situation where Svalbard inhabitants postpone necessary treatment trips to the mainland because they have to be quarantined upon return, and that cannot be defended in the longer run”, the Infection Control Chief Medical says.

“If the quarantine were to remain in place over the summer, we will get infection here anyway, just a bit later. And since we now have the preparedness required in place, there is no point in waiting.”

Selmer says the hospital has a good dialogue with the Svalbard Governor, Visit Svalbard and the local authorities, and that they are currently conducting a risk and vulnerability assessment.

“Companies in Svalbard must be able to refer to a plan for carrying out national infection control regulations, and I think they are on schedule there. The fact is that we cannot do anything about geography. Growing ill is more demanding in Svalbard as transporting a patient takes ten hours. Thus, being ready is so vital for us.”

“But we will not be more ready in July or August than we are today”, Knut Selmer says in closing.

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