Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Iceland’s ‘science first’ approach to success

The final country in this three-part series investigating leaders that have successfully managed Coronavirus, we take a closer look at Iceland and its Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Through an integrated strategy using Iceland’s science and research industry and collectively supporting each other as a community, Iceland has only suffered 10 deaths out of its population of 360 thousand.

Like other successful leaders, Jakobsdóttir was quick to react to initial reports of the virus in January 2020. Her government mobilised the National Crisis Coordination Center on the 31 January and set up rigorous, free mass testing from February; organised through a public-private partnership between the National University of Iceland and deCODE Genetics, a biotechnology company based in Reykjavik.

Due to the country’s small population size, officials have been able to directly support its citizens, setting up a ‘back up’ communication system with the assistance of the Icelandic Medical Association. This system consists of volunteer doctors and nurses that call members of the public that have tested positive or are quarantining, with those at higher risk such as elderly patients with high blood pressure contacted every day.

This communication has prevented the spread of misinformation around the virus while ensuring more vulnerable members of the population are not too socially isolated from their communities.  It has further created a network that allows a team of contact tracers to manually work out possible highly infectious areas and contact those who need to self-isolate.

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Jakobsdóttir has highlighted that she has had a ‘science first’ approach, relying on scientist’s experience to gain a deeper understanding the virus. The main team guiding Iceland’s response to Covid-19 is made up of what is locally referred to as ‘the holy trinity’: the country’s director of emergency management, Víðir Reynisson; chief epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason and director of health, Alma Möller. These three experts have conducted daily TV briefings throughout the pandemic, offering accurate, apolitical guidance to their viewers.

Furthermore, the track and trace app, Rakning C-19 developed by an external programming team has been reported to have the highest user penetration compared with other global contact tracing apps, with initially 40% of Iceland’s residents downloading the app. Since Iceland reopened its borders in June, Jakobsdóttir has launched an initiative encouraging tourists to use Rakning C-19, along with the country’s Coronavirus website covid.is. The website’s slogan ‘be a strong link in the chain’, translated into a multiple languages demonstrates the collective responsibility Iceland strives to uphold to protect each other whether as a resident or a tourist. 

In spite of the low death count, Iceland has experienced a spike in cases over the course of October at a total of 3837. While Jakobsdóttir’s varied approaches have been effective so far, it is clear that this virus will require further tough measures to be controlled in the long term.


As the final look into leaders that have successfully managed Coronavirus, it is important to examine the parallels in the leadership of Jacinda Ardern, Tsai Ing-wen and Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Interestingly all leaders are women which bears a curious correlation given that only 7% of world leaders are women. Other globally lauded countries include Finland, Bangladesh and Germany who also have female leaders. All the leaders investigated have prioritised two main attributes — collaboration and empathy.

They have co-operated effectively with both the public and leading experts while ensuring that citizens, including the most vulnerable, are supported. These leaders have found a fine balance between a clear strategy that has been implemented well and maintaining public trust. They have also embraced technology and harnessed the power of data analytics to develop world-leading contact tracing apps.

As the UK finds itself facing another spike in Covid-19 infections, it is essential that British leaders look to nations like New Zealand, Taiwan and Iceland as examples of how to control this unknown virus and allow its citizens to look towards a positive future.