Denmark confirms plan to reintroduce face mask rules

The Danish government said on Wednesday it plans to reintroduce face mask requirements on public transport and in supermarkets and other consumer settings. Rules relating to the coronapas Covid-19 health pass could also be broadened.

Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke briefs press on the plan to reintroduce facemask rules in response to a winter 2021 surge of Covid-19 cases.
Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke briefs press on the plan to reintroduce facemask rules in response to a winter 2021 surge of Covid-19 cases. Photo: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix

Health Minister Magnus Heunicke confirmed at a ministry press briefing on Wednesday that the government will seek to reimplement face mask rules requiring the protective garment to be worn on public transport and in stores.

“We have a different epidemic in front of us now. The Delta variant is much more infectious and it is a challenge for us. We must therefore put these tools into use,” Heunicke said.

The government also wants to bring back face mask requirements in health and social care settings such as hospitals, clinics and community care.

The move, which is a recommendation from the government’s advisory Epidemic Commission, must not be opposed by the relevant parliamentary committee in order to come into effect.

The committee will meet tomorrow, Heunicke said at the briefing.

Should the committee approve the measure, it could come into effect from Monday November 29th, the minister said.

A total of 4,426 new cases of the virus were confirmed by infectious disease agency State Serum Institute (SSI) on Wednesday. That is the highest figure yet in 2021, breaking the record set 24 hours prior.

Face mask rules were previously in place in Denmark from autumn 2020 before being phased out during summer 2021, and were fully lifted in August.

In addition to the return of face masks, the government wants to change the rules on the Covid-19 health pass used in Denmark, the coronapas.

Specifically, the period for which a negative Covid-19 test gives a valid coronapas will be reduced to 72 hours for a negative PCR test and 48 hours for a negative rapid antigen test.

Currently, unvaccinated people can hold a valid coronapas for 96 hours through a negative PCR test, or 72 hours with a rapid antigen test.

“The old rules prevent 50 percent of infections. The new rules prevent two thirds of infections [compared to not using a coronapas in the same settings, ed.],” Henrik Ullum, the head of the national infectious disease agency SSI, said at the briefing.

The health pass will also be extended to be required at public sector workplaces and vocational and youth colleges (voksen- og ungdomsuddannelser), as well as at hairdressers, tattooists and similar services. Visitors to elderly care homes will also be required to present a coronapas.

It is currently required at bars, cafes, restaurants and large events.

The director of the Danish Health Authority Søren Brostrøm said at the briefing that health authorities were not in favour of applying coronapas rules to public transport.

“It would be a big job to check for a green coronapas on public transport. We have therefore concluded that face masks would be the most efficient (option),” Brostrøm said.

“You might also need to be on public transport without a green coronapas because you are on your way to get a test,” he noted.

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Why Danish government is considering more scope for epidemic restrictions

The Danish government must currently receive the backing of parliament before implementing major interventions in response to a public health threat such as the Covid-19 pandemic. But an evaluation by two ministries suggests they favour more flexibility on the area.

Why Danish government is considering more scope for epidemic restrictions

Under current laws, parliament must vote to approve the categorisation of a disease as a ‘critical threat’ to society (samfundskritisk).

Only when a disease or an epidemic has been categorised in this way by parliament can all  of the interventions available to the government under the epidemic law be brought into play.

In other words, the government must face parliamentary checks and controls before implementing restrictions.

Those interventions range from the most invasive, such as lockdowns and assembly limits, to less invasive, but still significant, measures such as face mask mandates and health pass requirements like those seen with the coronapas (Covid-19 health pass) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: Denmark decommissions country’s Covid-19 health pass

The Ministry of Health now wants to change the existing structure within the Epidemic Law, newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported on Monday.

In an evaluation, the ministry proposes a change to the rules such that requirements for things like face masks and the coronapas can be introduced for diseases that are not only in the ‘critical threat’ category, but also for those rated an almen farlig sygdom, ‘dangerous to public health’.

This would put some of the restrictions in the lower category which is not subject to parliamentary control.

The evaluation was sent by the health and justice ministries to parliament in October but has escaped wider attention until now, Jyllands-Posten writes.

In its evaluation of the epidemic law, the Justice Ministry states that there is a “large jump” between the small pool of restrictions that can be introduced against ‘dangerous to public health diseases’ and the major societal interventions the government – with parliamentary backing – can use once a disease is classed as a ‘critical threat’.

“This jump does not quite seem to correspond with the actual demand for potential restrictions against diseases dangerous to public health, which can spread while not being critical to society,” the ministry writes.

The health ministry said in the evaluation the “consideration” should be made as to whether less invasive measures should continue to pass through parliament, as is the case under the current rules.

The national organisation for municipalities, KL, has told parliament that it backs the thinking of the ministries over the issue but that parliamentary control must be retained.

The Danish Council on Ethics (Det Etiske Råd) told Jyllands-Posten that it was “very sceptical” regarding the recommendation.

“The council therefore points out that a slippery slope could result if the restrictions, interventions and options that can be brought into use with diseases that present a critical threat to society, can also be used with dangerous diseases like normal influenza,” the council said.

The minority government’s allied political parties all stated scepticism towards the proposal, in comments reported by Jyllands-Posten.

In a written comment, the health ministry told the newspaper that Health Minister Magnus Heunicke would discuss committee stage responses with the other partied before deciding on “the need for initiatives”.