What happened to Denmark’s supermarket checkout dividers?

The ‘divider’, a piece of plastic placed on the conveyer belt at Danish supermarket checkouts to separate shoppers’ goods from each other, disappeared in 2020 as a precaution against Covid-19. Will it return?

Supermarket checkout dividers
Supermarket checkout dividers - seen here on the left of the image - were removed at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Denmark and are yet to return, despite the end of national restrictions. File photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Most of the guidelines and restrictions that became part of everyday life in Denmark during the Covid-19 pandemic are now no longer effective after the country decided to bring restrictions to an end at the beginning of February.

At that time, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced the country’s return “to life as we knew it before corona”.

READ ALSO: Are any Covid-19 rules still in force in Denmark?

Whether life can ever entirely return to the way it was before Covid-19 is probably a topic for another (and longer) discussion. But one aspect of pre-Covid Denmark yet to come back is the humble piece of plastic which supermarket customers place next to the goods at checkouts, to make sure they don’t get mixed up with the next shopper’s wares.

Broadcaster DR reported on Monday that the separator or skilleren as it is referred to in Danish is unlikely to make a comeback any time soon.

There are “no immediate plans to let the product divider come back,” Jens Juul Nielsen, head of information with Coop, which owns the Fakta, SuperBrugsen, Kvickly and Irma chains, told DR.

That decision was made despite health authority assessments backing the end of Covid-19 restrictions.

Another supermarket executive also told DR that the plastic sign was not likely to be brought back.

“Restrictions have been lifted before and we kept (the decision to remove the divider) then, and that’s why we’re also doing this now,” Jacob Krogsgaard Nielsen, head of press communication with Salling Group, told DR.

Although there are no current plans to bring it back, no permanent decision has been made by the Coop group.

“It could well (come back) one day when we’ve forgotten all about corona,” Nielsen said.

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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”.