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When the Nordic open labour market ended overnight

When the Nordic open labour market ended overnight

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo Adrian Øhrn Joahansen

This summer, the common Nordic labour market will be 70 years old. But have we really been able to work freely in a neighbouring Nordic country for that whole period of time? The border between Norway and Sweden was closed for 23 months during the Corona pandemic, a new book published by the Svinesund Committee points out.

22 Norwegian and Swedish people who followed the pandemic closely in the border region have written about what happened when Norway closed the border on 16 March 2020.

“The pandemic split Norwegians and Swedes. It is not the first time this national border has become tangible, but it was a shock for people living near it who had taken the open border for granted. In no time at all, trust plummeted and accusations grew,” writes Cecilia Nilsson, CEO of the Svinesund Committee, in her introduction. 

She continues:

“During 681 days, police guarded the border and car tyres blocked roads crossing it. Few of the daily 22,000 passengers who usually cross the Svinesund bridges remained. It was impossible to get to work or to go to ice hockey training.”

Norwegians who chose to cross the Swedish border, which was kept open, were forced to spend 14 days in quarantine when they returned to Norway.

“This meant Strömstad overnight turned from being a place full of life to a place in complete silence. Streets and squares were virtually empty,” writes Kent Hansson, chair of the Strömstad city executive board.

One-third of border trade

The year before the pandemic, Norwegians had been shopping for 27 billion Swedish kronor (€2.3m) in Sweden. 9 billion – one-third – was spent in Strömstad.

“Big border trade companies and the tourism industry reported a decrease in turnover of over 95 per cent. Despite state support packages, nearly 1,500 people lost their jobs, which was almost 20 per cent of the workforce. Had this been in a big city like Göteborg, it would have corresponded to around 75,000 jobs,” writes Kent Hansson.

But there were problems on the other side of the Swedish border too.

“In Eidskog municipality, before the pandemic, around 100 out of 600 employees lived in Sweden. Then we had all those working in our local businesses. The municipality does not work without our doctors, nurses, preschool teachers, leaders, NAV employees and others who live ‘on the other side’,” writes Kamilla Thue, Mayor of Eidskog municipality on the border with Sweden.

When restrictions were eased, border trade picked up pace quickly. But it has taken longer to get over the way people were treated – Swedes who had to wear face masks, get tested more often or who had to sit in designated canteen areas in their Norwegian workplaces. On both sides, it was not possible to visit friends, play with grandchildren or say goodbye to a dying grandmother.

Tegnell on infection

Did the minimal effect on the spread of infection stand in any reasonable proportion to the interventions in people's lives? It is not particularly surprising that Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who led Sweden's efforts against the epidemic, is still critical to the closing of the borders.

“It is hard to believe that a few infected people would have an impact on transmission rates. We also know from experience that it is people who return back home who spread the infection, not visitors or tourists. Citizens of one country can never be banned from returning home, they might be forced to quarantine, but any spread will be hard to control,” writes Anders Tegnell.

His opposite in Norway, Preben Aavitsland at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, is also critical.

“Norway had some of the strictest measures in Europe, the border to Norway remained practically shut for long periods of time. At some stages, the border crossing with Sweden was guarded by soldiers and it is actually a bit embarrassing to look back on this,” he writes.

Norwegian politicians made decisions in a near state of panic, according to Aavitsland. Closing the border created an impression that the threat was coming from abroad and that it could actually be stopped.

“After a while, the term ‘imported infection’ was introduced, as if you were talking about a different and even worse virus,” he writes.

The future

Much of the book looks to the future. What should be done the next time? 

“It is only one year since the WHO declared the pandemic to be over. In another twelve months most might be forgotten. I don’t want that to happen,” writes Linn Laupsa, Deputy Mayor of Halden municipality.

She sums up in 12 points what should be done differently in the future (we have abbreviated them somewhat): 

  1. Norway and Sweden should synchronise crisis plans
  2. Prepare a model for how Norwegian and Swedish regions can cooperate during a cross-border crisis.
  3. The Prime Ministers should draft a memorandum of understanding to avoid border closures.
  4. Conduct crisis preparedness exercises in border areas.
  5. Allocate funds for this purpose.
  6. Adhere to the Schengen Agreement on open borders.
  7. Determine which travel documents are valid in border areas.
  8. Collaborate with the European Union Agency for Emergency Situations (HERA).
  9. Continue debating pandemic management.
  10. Hold more meetings with politicians in border regions.
  11. Enhance civilian preparedness.
  12. The Nordic Council of Ministers should increase its focus on preparedness and pandemic management.
For 681 days

during the pandemic, car tyres closed the road to Norway from Sweden.


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