Iceland Tightens Open Borders Policy as Virus Cases Rise

Iceland’s government tightened rules for travelers to the island following criticism to its open borders policy amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases.

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir said at the press conference that the country will begin requiring double testing and a mandatory quarantine of 4 to 5 days for foreign tourists and Icelanders returning from holidays abroad between tests. The measures, among several steps proposed by the country’s chief epidemiologist, will take effect on Aug. 19.

“We are dealing with a group infection we cannot trace how got into the country,” Jakobsdottir said. “The data tells us we are dealing with another variation of the virus than this spring, which tells us that this is an infection that somehow managed to slip into the country.”

After a period of no new cases, a total of 106 people have tested positive for coronavirus during the past weeks, prompting Norway to add the island to its high-risk list.

Iceland introduced coronavirus tests for anyone arriving at Keflavik Airport on June 15 in an effort to salvage its tourism industry, the country’s main export. Travelers from countries considered safe, such as Germany or Denmark, were exempted from the tests a month later.

The policy, which replaced a mandatory quarantine for all visitors, did little to encourage tourism. In fact, foreign tourist numbers were down 80% in July from a year ago. The development drew criticism from several economists, who accuse the government of placing the interests of the travel industry above the interests of the economy as a whole.

Iceland Tightens Open Borders Policy as Virus Cases Rise

“It would be more efficient for society if the rules on entry at the borders were tightened.” Tinna Laufey Asgeirsdottir, a health economics professor at the University of Iceland, said in an interview in Reykjavik, before the government announced the new measures.

Asgeirsdottir took issue with the government’s policy of subsiding the airport tests. Visitors were initially tested for free, but were later charged $100. The price has since come down, to around $66. The professor said that when intangibles such as health and time lost due to quarantines are taken into account, those tests should be priced at several hundred dollars each at least.

According to Gylfi Zoega, an economics professor at the same university, the costs to the economy from a domestic outbreak caused by higher tourist flows would be “multiple the gain from those visits,” he wrote in an article published by local paper Morgunbladid.

Before announcing the new requirements, Jakobsdottir had said the border rules were aimed at protecting society as a whole, where “two things matter: health and disease prevention, but also keeping society afloat,” in an interview with Morgunbladid.

But now, “we are seeing the epidemic growing everywhere in the world,” Jakobsdottir said. “We see a reason to build upon the arrangement we have had here.”

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