Norway to gradually ease capital's COVID-19 lockdown from February 3

View of a near-empty city after the discovery of the British novel coronavirus variant in a retirement home near Oslo, Norway January 23, 2021. NTB/Terje Pedersen via REUTERS/Files

OSLO (Reuters) - The Norwegian government will gradually loosen the capital region’s coronavirus lockdown, allowing some shops and recreational activities to reopen from Feb. 3 onwards, Health Minister Bent Hoeie said on Saturday.

The outbreak of a more contagious variant of COVID-19, first identified in Britain, had prompted the introduction of stricter measures on Jan. 23, including the closure of all non-essential stores in and around Oslo for the first time in the pandemic.

“Infections are going down continuously in Norway and we now have a better overview over the outbreak and spread,” Hoeie told a news conference.

The situation in the capital region remains uncertain, however, and the easing will therefore be gradual, he added.

Stores that are not in shopping centres will be allowed to reopen on Wednesday, as will restaurants although alcohol cannot be served, the government said.

Schools will also see fewer restrictions, allowing for more classroom teaching and bigger groups of students, although local conditions will apply.

A closure of the Norwegian border for all but essential visits that took effect on Friday remains in place at least until Feb. 11.

The nation of 5.4 million people has recorded 62,276 COVID-19 cases and 563 deaths so far in the pandemic, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, making it one of Europe’s least affected countries.

The country’s reproduction rate, which indicates how many people on average an infected person transmits the virus to, last stood at 0.6, according to official statistics.

Editing by Terje Solsvik and Toby Chopra