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Comparing Coronavirus Response in Norway & the UK

Norway and UK highlighted on a map of Europe

Norway and the UK are near neighbours and important trading partners. But their approaches to tackling the coronavirus outbreak have been starkly different. One British expat living in Norway takes a closer look.

Regardless of your perception of Norway’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, businesses’ hands have more or less been forced by the general consensus and we are increasingly seeing a homogeneous response across the continent. But things look quite different in the UK.

The coronavirus response in Norway

In Norway, some business owners have responded angrily to the country's emergency measures. Today, for example, the local diocese decided to postpone all spring confirmations, meaning hundreds of businesses will lose out on revenue which has been on the books for twelve months or more.

Cancelling these events in May seems trigger-happy at this stage, but the bout of layoffs in the hospitality industry, in particular, means uncertainty pervades.

The flags of Norway and the United Kingdom

Right now there is a sense of ‘dugnad’ in Norway – a tradition whereby everyone chips in and contributes, fulfilling their communal obligations to society. It’s social democracy in action; every spring your will see all neighbours coming out to tidy up their streets together, parents will sacrifice evenings to man kiosk and do stock counts for their kids’ sport teams, and people will generally ‘do their bit’, for fear of being considered a social outlier.

The response to the coronavirus has been billed the “biggest dugnad in Norwegian history”. People are expected to toe the line. The government has even threatened to bring in the home guard to forcibly evict people from their cabins, and sending them back to their homes, to suffer in silence like the rest of us.

The coronavirus response in the UK

Meanwhile in the UK Boris Johnson ‘advises’ that no-one go to the pub. When the Norwegian government said stop going to bars and restaurants, the public obeyed and the market literally dried up overnight. When Boris Johnson said the same, even his own father chose to ignore him. Herein lies the difference.

Read more: Coronavirus in Norway: The Latest News

From this side of the water, what we are witnessing in the UK is of great interest to everyone in Norway. Images of throngs of people squeezed into Cheltenham to watch the Gold Cup last week, merry, dressed to the nines, with their hands plastered all over the faces in joy/commiseration at the latest race, have been shared in Norwegian media.

An illustration of the coronavirus

This was just days after the all large gatherings were banned here, and after the Premier League closed down, it should be said, adding to the confusion. The British antics were met with bafflement and bemusement here: “Don’t the British care about the situation? Are they stupid? Haha, check out the British, they don’t give a shit!”

But even more interesting has been the British government’s reluctance to ban events and enforce closures in the UK. This means that employers have no rights or insurance options, despite dwindling customer bases.

The British gamble

It’s a fascinating conundrum. If you follow the Norway model, which most European countries have in one way or another, then you bottom out the market and uniformly destroy industry, with an eye to getting on top of the crisis and rebuilding as one.

Read more: The British Ambassador to Norway

It slightly favours the large, strong companies (name a policy which doesn’t), while simultaneously offering life support to the minnows.

But it takes a massive gamble – there is no guarantee when the crisis will end nor what the long-term effects will be on hospitality generally? The British method keeps the businesses open for as long as possible, combined with a more pragmatic approach to the way in which the virus may spread.

Map of United Kingdom and Norway

It seems as though that approach may well come to bite them in the arse, but I wonder how much of the British decision was dictated by a realistic understanding that there simply were not Norwegian/German/Belgian/Danish etc. levels of social funds to manage enforced closure?

In the UK, you can claim statutory redundancy pay if you’re eligible and you’ve been temporarily laid off (without pay or less than half a week’s pay) for more than four weeks in a row (or more than six non-consecutive weeks in a 13 week period). Redundancy pay is quite complicated and is the obligation of the employer. If all hospitality in the UK was forced to close, then there would be recession-level bankruptcy across the market.

Read more: Home Quarantine & Home Isolation in Norway

If the state offered a change in the regulations to accommodate the unprecedented nature of the crisis, involving parachute payments à la Norway, then it would be the state which would be bankrupt. Britain is also a more litigious society, which could lead to fear for a catastrophic legal fallout.

In both Britain and Norway, the public are ceding unprecedented levels of authority to the state. Is this an opportunity or a dilution of rights? Whatever the differences between the two states, there will be the possibility for social reform after the storm.

After healthcare, comes the economic fallout

At this moment, the global focus is rightly on the health care aspect: how to support the infrastructure so that sick people can be treated, how to ‘flatten the curve’ so that services are not overwhelmed. I have a feeling that in the not-too-distant future this will shift to the long-term financial effect of the policies which countries enforced.

Healthcare travel
The focus is—for now—on healthcare

Within one week over 85.000 people—including me—have been temporarily laid off in Norway as a result of the crisis. I feel confident about the future and well supported by the state. If I were to use this moment to speak about the child support I receive and the instant boost I got upon dismissal, I think people’s eyes would start watering in the UK.

The British government has just pledged £330bn in loans to help businesses get back on their feet, which is approximately 30 times what Norway has promised (for a population a twelfth of the size). It is hard to say how much money will need to be pumped into the redundancy packages, £1bn perhaps? £10bn?

One wonders whether all this money might have been better spent on emergency medical care, testing and focusing on the at risk in our societies, rather than bottoming out an industry which is which responsible for well over 10% of global GDP.

But perhaps that’s a conversation for another day. One thing is for sure, hindsight is going to have its day in court when all this is done and dusted.

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About the Author: Wil Lee-Wright

Wil Lee-Wright is the Creative Editor at Britannia Hotel. He moved to Norway in 2009 and has previously worked as a professional photographer, copywriter and magazine publisher.

29 Comments

  1. Dear Will

    A very interesting piece, and I really liked the fact that you call it a Gamble which it is.
    As far as I understand the UK Government is not testing everyone anymore, except the ones in hospital, surely this will have impact the distribution rate of the virus.
    The economy was hit by Brexit, this will just spiral its down.
    I believe the lack of success (in case) will also impact the nation in years to come. What is your take?
    Have a good day, and lets hope it will be somehow all fine ….
    One can hope
    Oz

    1. Thanks for reading Oz. The testing rates is an interesting point – I have hardly seen any evidence of testing in Norway either. Bizarre really and that is certainly somewhere I think money might have been better spent.

      In terms of the economy; I think the effects of this crisis are incomparable with Brexit, or even the 2008 crash. We have seen the economy come to a shuddering halt, with empty streets and government intervention on a scale not seen this side of a world war (except in Hollywood movies). The virus has gone deep into world economy and the discussion on how to limit the repercussions has only just begun.

  2. A poorly written article which seems more influenced by a disdain for the British than any factual reality. Different countries are at different stages regarding the spread of the disease and different countries are doing things at different times. The idea that everything has to shut down immediately is contrary to the science and Norway, until very recently, had more raw cases of the virus than Britain (and Norway has a population comparable to some British regions).

    It’s great though that you’re taking this opportunity to try and justify your move to Norway by portraying the British response as incompetent. I’m sure you’ve written similar articles about Brexit etc and I’m sure Norwegians love to read articles like this.

    It’s wholly unfair to portray Brits as alcoholics that are ignoring government advice and then portray Norway as a country of do-gooders, which is exactly what you’ve done. In each of our countries there are people that are following the advice of the government to the word and others that are not yet awake to the seriousness of the situation.

    Nonetheless, thank you for your analysis, albeit meaningless and horrible biased.

    1. Hi Michael, I take your criticism on the chin, because if that’s the way it comes across then it was indeed a poorly written article. It was not my intention to paint one country’s response as being better than another.

      In fact, my opinion is that while in the thick of this crisis, one can pick holes in any given response all they like, but there will be no saying whether it was the right choice until much further down the line. It is widely accepted that Britain has pursued a policy quite distinct from the majority of Europe up until this point, although I see most countries are starting to come into line with one another the further we go. I have not written anything about Brexit before, but I am working something about the pain which has been caused by immediate closure, which I believe is much more in keeping with your viewpoint.

      I think you would probably be quite interested to read that most Norwegians are anglophiles, and that laughing at the Brits drinking their way through the crisis comes from a place of fondness, not disdain. Jealousy even, as we are all holed up at home, sweeping our drives and so on. And you have to admit, watching 79-year-old Stanley Johnson ignore his son’s advice about pubs was a bit of levity in this otherwise dire situation we find ourselves in, regardless of where we are suffering it. “What if I have to go to a pub!?”

    2. I think that UK is indeed ridden with alcoholics that can’t stand the thought of not being able to go to the pub or a football match. I hear things like “it’s just a flu” said way too often and it scares me. The British have no idea how to act and by being ignorant they’re making it much worse.

      I’d also love to see the British start washing their hands after using the toilet. Something that I see quite rarely in some places. I’m currently under quarantine in Norway as well and I can tell you that I really respect what they’re doing, while reading and hearing about UK’s response to this problem just makes me scratch my head in disbelief.
      NHS is about to get hit really, really hard by the virus. Were not flattening the curve at all.
      UK is trying to do something different than other countries and it’s going absolutely terribly.

      1. Paul , as a UK citizen 🖕 jokes lol, the government here is doing jack at containing cities mainly the capital where it’s at the worst! Not all Brits are alcoholics lol yes I like a few beers at night maybe some sour mash whisky…I don’t go to pubs and glad football is cancelled for now … But the way sh*t is going my one and only escape with fellow minded music fans may get postponed or even cancelled ….because our pm can’t even comb his hair ! Let alone enforce what he promised a month ago ….. I’m at the minute ashamed to be a British citizen

    3. «Norway, until very recently, had more raw cases of the virus than Britain»

      It didn’t. It had a similar number of diagnosed cases, presumably because far more people were tested. This is now wholly apparent if you compare the death rates in each country.

      Norway currently has 7 dead, 154 hospitalised. The UK has 177 dead. Death in China occurred on average 18 days after hospital admission. So a couple of weeks ago, when the apparent numbers were very similar, the reality was that the UK had way more cases.

      It may still be judged, with hindsight, that the path the UK took was better. But for now, their approach looks frightening to those of us with elderly relatives who will almost certainly find themselves without emergency healthcare, should they need it.

    4. April 4: UK: 41,903 cases, 4,313 deaths. Norway: 5,519 cases, 61 deaths. How’s that defense of going to the pub and Boris’s lack of good policy working out for ya?

  3. This is not a time for pointing fingers or political point scoring . It’s a “My Countries better than yours story” and Ill timed . I send the loveley people of Norway my Best Wishes and hope we and all Countries come through this uncertain time with the minimum of loss
    both socially and economically .

  4. Oh deary me! Until recently Norway was the second most infected country in the world per population, and is currently third as I write. Perhaps the author has a crystal ball and can tell us what will happen when Norway decides to relax the isolation releasing the cork? I have family there myself and I am very worried about the course of action they’ve taken, though conceding they had little choice at the time due to the severity of the outbreak.
    With the bottom falling out of the oil price, the kroner collapsing and world markets in disarray, just how long can the Norwegian state be expected to support a non-productive society?
    I hope for my own families sake, and the rest of Norway, the ignorance expressed in this article doesn’t cause us all to live to regret these rather smug and foolish words.

    1. Well if our foreign assets in the financial market dosnt crash completely we have about 10 years state-budget worth of savings.

  5. Writing cross-cultural comparisons on the economic and social responses of Norway and the UK towards C19 requires more than just a superficial understanding of the different media coverage. This article scratches the surface and seems more interested in striking a jocular tone than exploring the serious science and decision-making underlining the staggered political regulation and reactions to the virus’s spread. As such it was better not written than adding to the growing pile of bad journalese circulating the internet. The author’s replies to some reader’s comments only makes matters worse and justifies the above points. Sorry!

  6. I agree with the comments above. My son-in-law came back from a business trip in Germany, got very sick, then my daughter got sick. They both stayed very sick for about ten days. Doctor would not talk to or see them. The medical community would not test them unless they were sick enough to enter the hospital. So no, they are not testing everyone either. Even the very sick ones. The number of infected is/was most likely higher. Norway likes to think they’ve handled things perfectly but in my opinion they have not and they have a much smaller population to deal with.

  7. Editorial jabs aside, it is becoming clear to me that my family’s current health and future health seem to center on us not relying on any entity but ourselves. Proverbially speaking, locking everyone up in their homes and refusing anyone medical treatment seems to in our very near future.

    Putting on the tin foil hat, I wonder if this situation is a call by the powerful to strip humanity of more rights and force us to rely on more government care.

    1. I think there is more to this than meets the eye too, just as 9/11 chnaged the freedoms we once enjoyed, I think the overkill on this has a sinster undercurrent…indeed globally the total deaths after some 120 days have totalled and I am even allowing for many countriesunder reporting perhaps 20% of the people who normally die every single day, to trash the global economy for that seems absurd.

    1. Oh dear, the quality of commentary falls when insults fly. So far no one has accused any nation of better or worse dealings of the C19 pandemic (other than probably the unintended tone of the article), with one comment at least being based on personal experience. Inflammatory and personal invective is unnecessary. For example, speaking to family in Germany I have learnt Merkel has been on TV advising youngsters to stop throwing ‘Coronavirus’ parties – does that mean we should all generalise negatively about the German character or perhaps put it into context what a few German youth are doing, rather than the whole nation? The blame game Hunter is pointless, unwelcome and unhelpful.

  8. Regarding the cultural practice you mentioned, of everyone pitching: the vast number of people do want to do it because they want to help their neighbors, not because they are afraid of becoming ‘outliers.’ Besides knowing that thousands are dying, and millions facing economic crisis, I feel sad because it’s hard to find ways to be helpful, ie volunteering.
    And by the way the public system has declined so that here in the US there are woefully few tests and masks. Shameful for being the wealthiest country.

  9. What we all need is 2020 hindsight, which none of us have or will have for some time to come. So, please, let us all be supportive of one another, keep calm, try and stay as fit and as well as we are able and talk about this again at some later date.

  10. Interesting to read a variety of views on the current crisis. The more trenchant ones from Brits is reminiscent of the ‘ Last days of the Empire’. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies eg Norway has by far more second homes by percentage of population than UK which the authorities recognised early on stopping folk going to them . The reasons are obvious. It remains to be seen what happens at Easter when there is traditionally a get away to the cabins ! Unlike the selfish Brits In UK who clogged up Snowdonia and many other areas completely ignoring govt advice. Arrogance springs to mind !! I know which country I would prefer to be in just now and it’s not UK ! The support in Scandinavian countries for their population is far superior to that of UK where ,for example,pensions are the worst in Europe by a very long way .

  11. Nationalistic propaganda at its best. Yes Norway is rich, and yes it’s citizens are being well looked after. Good for them. No need for the tone of this piece, which is in very bad taste. One British subscriber here, who will no longer be subscribing to “Life in Norway”.

  12. To all people around the world at this time all I can say is do as your medical people advise and perhaps we can talk about this strange virus that has gone around the world when it passes and have developed a vaccine to cure the illness should it occur again.

    To those who have lost someone, my sympathy. To others stay healthy and happy. Give each other a hug from me.

  13. Hi, I had the wonderful priviledge as a teenage student of a 6 week period of being hosted by Oslo Lysverker in 1951 at Hovet-i-Hallingdal Hydro-Electric PS & loved every minute & met some lovely folks, and then spent 2 weeks crossing from West to East on holiday. Norway has been my favourite European country ever since!

    Here are Norway’s coronavirus statistics for today: As of 27 March 2020, Norway has performed 73,892 tests, reported 3,423 confirmed cases and 15 deaths? Here is UK, yesterday’s statistic were: As of 9am on 27 March 2020, a total of 113,777 people have been tested, of which 99,234 were confirmed negative and 14,543 were confirmed positive. As of 5pm on 26 March 2020, 759 patients in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) have died. Populations: Norway = 5,328,212; UK = 66,647,112. So, Virus impact comparisons:
    Norway UK
    % Testing/pop’n 1.387 0.17
    % Confirmed cases/pop’n 0.064 0.022
    % Deaths/pop’n 0.00028 0.00114

    (https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/norway/uk)

    So, what do we conclude from the above? UK limited testing has not produced more confirmed cases? But, we have significant more deaths; so is that due to our slower approach to lockdown! That is with a very simplistic appraisal, and is no gounds whatsoever for ‘knocking either nation’, so stop doing it!

  14. You make Norwegians sound like they just jumped out of an episode of Westworld:) Word of advise sir… do your due diligence next time you decide on a “Clickbait” as both Countries do deserve a bit of human empathy in these difficult times!

  15. Norway and Norwegians protected their own better. Over 30000 lives lost with our country’s and and people’s approach. Just over 250 deaths in Norway indicating a clearly better approach.
    British daily death toll still higher than Norway’s entire Death total and the only reason we’re not an international laughing stock is that 30000 real people being dead, many of whom should still be here bringing love and being loved, just is not funny to anyone.

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