How these European countries got their Covid response so right

Tight travel restrictions and public trust in government have been key to keeping virus check

View of the Hakaniemi Sunday market, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Helsinki, Finland November 1, 2020. Lehtikuva/Markku Ulander via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. FINLAND OUT.
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Although many countries in Europe have struggled to contain the coronavirus, some have been exemplary.

This can be attributed to strict border controls, a comprehensive track-and-test system, sparse populations, well-timed and stringent lockdowns, public trust in government and adherence to social restrictions.

Mass testing, major turnaround

Slovakia has impressed the continent with its ambitious testing programme.

The Eastern European country’s nationwide regime reportedly saw coronavirus infection rates drop by more than half in areas where testing was significantly increased.

More than three million of Slovakia’s 5.5 million population were given free antigen test kits in a two-day operation this month. About 1 per cent of those tested returned a positive result.

There are also lessons to be learnt from the Nordic countries. Sweden raised eyebrows with its strategy to let the virus run amok and shield only the vulnerable, but Finland and Norway received praise for their strategies, which involve tight border controls.

Finland did not enter a strict lockdown but still kept infection rates low.

People who travel to Norway must produce a negative Covid-19 test and stay confined for 10 days in a certified hotel after arriving. Those breaking rules face high fines or deportation.

As of Sunday, Norway has had only 32,352 cases overall and 306 deaths.

Iceland has also fared well in the coronavirus pandemic, after it began testing nearly a month before its first positive case.

It relied on genome sequencing to track the origin of Covid-19 and cut it off at the source, but that could happen only because the public had faith in health officials and police.

Behind Finland's low infection rate

Finland’s secret to success was stopping inbound international travel early and urging Finns not travel unless it was essential.

Travel dropped by 95 per cent, with many citizens opting for holidays within their own borders.

And the country’s track-and-trace system has proved efficient.

Early on, Finland relied on an app called Corona Flash for people to record their symptoms and test results.

Nearly half of the population downloaded it, a much higher engagement than in other countries.

Germany, for example, only had about a quarter of its population download its official track-and-trace app.

Perhaps partly because of its healthy economy, trust in Finland's government is high and there have not been anti-lockdown protests on the same scale as many other European nations.

And unlike countries such as the UK, which have had high infection rates, Norway and Finland have barely changed their Covid policies.

As of Sunday, Finland had only 21,639 cases and 375 deaths. It has the lowest infection rate for any country in Europe.

"Finland has a very good healthcare system that's based on public health, prevention and on primary care," Prof John Ashton, Britain's former director of public health, told The National.

“I suspect they haven't had much of a problem in terms of pressures on hospitals because they have very strong community and primary-care services.

"So they've been able to keep people out of hospital and not put the pressure on the hospital end.”

Cultural differences also play a role.

“There's a tradition of people doing the right thing in Finland," Prof Ashton said. "It's a very community-orientated country."

Lessons learnt?

He has also been advising the governments of Bahrain and Wales on their coronavirus responses.

Prof Ashton has been a vocal critic of the UK’s response to the pandemic, but says Prime Minister Boris Johnson is starting to learn from countries that have dealt with the pandemic more successfully.

In October, the professor released his book 'Blinded By Corona', where he compared the UK Covid-19 response to other epidemics, including Swine Flu.

Ministers in the UK are planning to ease Covid-19 restrictions over Christmas and allow families to get together.

“Boris Johnson seems to have got hold of the idea that you do need to reduce the amount of circulation to lower your virus numbers," Prof Ashton said.

"But the weakness is that they've got this obsession with trying to have as ‘normal’ a Christmas as possible and I think that's stupid.

“What we should be doing is telling people to have a quiet Christmas and not to expect it to be normal.

"This is one Christmas in a lifetime. You can have a proper Christmas next year.”

Cultural differences can also play a role around religious holidays and how fast the virus can spread through communities.

“It's partly about governments being decisive and doing the right thing and supporting people to do the right thing in their behaviour, and it's partly about how willing people are to do the right thing,” Prof Ashton said.

He said one of the reasons that the UK had such a high number of infections and deaths because public trust in the government has eroded.

That was due in part to Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson's former chief adviser, in May breaching the lockdown rules he helped to write.

The British government is said to be closely monitoring Slovakia’s response to the pandemic, and has similar ambitions for mass testing.