Norway to ease COVID-19 curbs, vaccine rollout may be delayed

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OSLO, April 7 (Reuters) - Norway will start to unwind some restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and allow more people to gather from Friday, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Tuesday.

However, the country's vaccine rollout risks being delayed by up to almost three months if it does not go ahead and use AstraZeneca (AZN.L) and Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ.N) shots, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said.

Norway will say on Thursday whether it will resume using the AstraZeneca vaccine, on hold since a small number of younger inoculated people developed a combination of blood clots, bleeding and a low platelet count, some of whom later died.

Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, said it was delaying the roll-out of its vaccine to Europe as U.S. health agencies recommended pausing its use after six women under 50 given the shot developed rare blood clots.

Norway has had some of Europe's lowest rates of infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic, but imposed stricter measures after a rapid increase in hospitalisations in March triggered by more contagious variants of the coronavirus.

"The infection numbers are now down. Hospitalisations are fewer. The measures look to have had an effect," Solberg told a news conference.

As a result, Norwegians will from Friday again be allowed to receive up to five guests in private homes, up from two currently, and restaurants can serve alcohol under certain conditions.

A maximum of 100 people will be allowed to attend indoor events in for example theatres and sports arenas, provided there are fixed seating arrangements, and groups of up to 200 people can attend outdoor events.

The easing of rules at the national level will not affect those in areas of the Nordic country where the infection rate is the highest, such as in the Oslo capital region, Solberg said.

Non-essential stores remain closed in the Oslo area, and restaurants there are still only allowed to provide takeaway service, and some schools remain shut.

Line Vold, head of infection control and emergency preparedness at the Institute of Public Health, predicted between eight and 12 weeks of delay in vaccinating Norwegians if the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots were shunned.

"It will be mainly for the younger groups (in the population). We will be done with vaccination of people in risk groups," she told the same news conference.

The government has said earlier it estimates that everyone aged 18 or older will have been offered their first vaccine shot by the end of July.

Reporting by Gwladys Fouche, editing by Terje Solsvik

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Thomson Reuters

Oversees news coverage from Norway for Reuters and loves flying to Svalbard in the Arctic, oil platforms in the North Sea, and guessing who is going to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Born in France and with Reuters since 2010, she has worked for The Guardian, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera English, among others, and speaks four languages.