Dagfinn Høybråten

A new agreement on health preparedness will ensure better co-operation between the Nordic countries in the event of major incidents or disasters affecting the region’s population.

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean a mere 1,200 kilometres from the North Pole. Longyearbyen is the administrative capital of Svalbard on the island of Spitsbergen. The settlement – one of the northernmost in the world – has around 2,100 inhabitants.

But why am I mentioning Svalbard? Because Svalbard has also lent its name to the Svalbard Group, which is the Nordic Health Preparedness Group which was established in 2001. This group is responsible for Nordic co-operation on health, based on a pan-Nordic health preparedness agreement. The purpose of the group is to provide mutual support and to share information and knowledge between the Nordic countries, both on request and spontaneously, on issues pertaining to health and social services related to emergency preparedness planning and crisis management in order to better deal with major incidents and disasters. The group held its first meeting on Svalbard, hence its name.

The Nordic Health Preparedness Group has been given a new mandate and a new strategic framework for its activities over the next 10 years.

Social services related to emergency preparedness planning and crisis management now feature in the mandate. This is a key area in the event of a major incident or crisis in a country.  Additionally, the group has adopted a new strategic framework that sets a clearer direction for Nordic co-operation.  With its new strategic framework, the Svalbard Group will help to ensure effective crisis management in the Nordic Region’s health and social services sector. This will take place by way of effective co-operation that is characterised by trust, flexibility, and mutual learning. The Svalbard Group will contribute to and look at areas of common Nordic interest in order to increase international influence. Furthermore the group will ensure cohesion between the health and social services sectors in relation to crisis management.

An important turning point for the work of the Svalbard Group is the annual health preparedness conference held by each of the Nordic countries in turn. The conference is an important forum for the Nordic authorities, who work with health preparedness on a daily basis. The conference is used to exchange experiences and information about incidents and disasters, as well as to create networks among those working with health preparedness in the different countries. This will help to ensure good lines of communication between the countries should an incident or disaster occur that requires the others’ assistance. This could involve an incident close to a border between the countries, where the ability to draw on each other’s resources may be vital.

Last year’s Nordic health preparedness conference was held on Svalbard under the Norwegian presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Topics included preparedness in Arctic areas and Nordic co-operation on burns, and so Svalbard seemed a natural host for the conference. With Svalbard’s unique climate and natural environment, where there are more polar bears than permanent residents, there was a special emphasis on exchanging information and listening to experiences of and plans for how health preparedness can cater for the whims of nature, which not only increase the risk of an incident occurring, but also complicate rescue efforts.

The tsunami in Greenland is a good, albeit unfortunate example of this. On 17 June 2017, Karrats Fjord in the Uummannaq region on Greenland’s west coast was hit by a tsunami. The tsunami caused major flooding and extensive damage to both property and human lives. Four people went missing. In connection with rescue efforts, the Ministers for Nordic Co-operation asked the Svalbard Group to look at the possibilities for providing assistance to the extent that Greenland needed.

At the conference, there were discussions about the difficult rescue efforts during the disaster, but also about the work still to be done to create a new life for all those affected.

Another important area that was addressed at last year’s conference was Nordic co-operation on burns. The Svalbard Group has decided to support efforts to develop a Nordic agreement on the treatment of burns to leverage the overall capacity of the Nordic Region as effectively as possible, should a major fire occur in the Nordic Region. The first meeting between the Nordic countries on the design of the agreement has already taken place in Norway.

The Nordic Council of Ministers has allocated DKK 100,000 for the establishment of a register and a joint prioritisation tool to manage this type of incident.  The forthcoming agreement is a positive and specific example of the benefits of Nordic co-operation in the Svalbard Group and of the importance of having a new strategic framework for Nordic health preparedness efforts, and is something I am very pleased about.

Dagfinn Høybråten
Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers