Danish parliament likely to back return of face masks

A majority of parties in the Danish parliament have signalled they are ready to back the government’s planned to reintroduce face mask rules. A decision is expected by Thursday evening.

Face masks in use in Denmark earlier this year. Reports suggest parliament will approve the government's plan to reintroduce face mask rules on public transport and in stores.
Face masks in use in Denmark earlier this year. Reports suggest parliament will approve the government's plan to reintroduce face mask rules on public transport and in stores.Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

The parties appear set to approve the move to bring back face masks after Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said at a press briefing on Wednesday evening that the government plans to reintroduce them on public transport and in supermarkets and other consumer settings.

Because of the way Danish law relating to restrictions on society during epidemics now works, the relevant parliamentary committee must not oppose measures put forward by the government, in order for them to come into effect.

The committee, the Epidemic Committee (Epidemiudvalget), consists of 21 lawmakers who represent each party proportionally to their number of seats in parliament.

Broadcaster DR reports that each of the three smaller left wing parties – the Social Liberals, Socialist People’s Party (SF) and Red Green Alliance – are prepared to support the move, meaning it is likely to be rubber stamped. The Conservative party has also spoken in favour of the decision.

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

“Some of the newest studies show a quite significant effect with the use of face masks, and although the coronapas is not a 100 percent guarantee, it makes it possible to break some chains of infection,” Social Liberal health spokesperson Stinus Lingreen, who also chairs the committee, told DR.

Red Green Alliance spokesperson Peder Hvelplund said face masks are “what health authorities recommend, so we will of course back it”. Hvelplund’s comment makes reference to the government’s advisory independent Epidemic Commission.

SF said it was “ready to support (the decision), but we want to discuss whether it is necessary for staff working in the sectors affected by face mask rules to also wear them”.

“We are in a position where our health services are extremely strained and we need to do something about it. I think that coronapas and face masks are a balanced and effective way to do this,” Conservative health spokesperson Per Larsen meanwhile told DR.

Other right wing parties, including the Danish People’s Party (DF) and Liberal Alliance, expressed scepticism over the decision in comments to DR. Both parties suggested better support for the health system as a preferred response, while DF also called for home testing to be made available for vaccinated people.

The government will however have the necessary support for the measures in the parliamentary committee, should the left wing parties and Conservatives maintain their support for it.

The committee is scheduled to meet at 5pm today.

A total of 4,426 new cases of the virus were confirmed yesterday, the highest figure yet in 2021.

Rules relating to the coronapas Covid-19 health pass could also be broadened should the parties not stand in the way of the ramped-up measures.

READ ALSO: Denmark confirms plan to reintroduce face mask rules

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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”.