Check against delivery: Mr Speaker, The Government adopted a resolution today on a plan for the continuation and controlled, gradual dismantling of the restrictive measures put in place to curb the coronavirus epidemic.
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, a state of emergency as referred to in the Emergency Powers Act has been in force in Finland for about two months. Although the spread of the virus is under control, the disease still exists, as does the concrete threat it poses. The Government estimates that regular powers are not sufficient to protect the population and ensure the carrying capacity of the healthcare system. For this reason, the Government has decided to extend some of the powers laid down in the Emergency Powers Act by through decrees on the use of these powers.
The Government has issued two decrees on the use of powers under the Emergency Powers Act. The first is the Decree on the extension of the powers to direct and manage healthcare laid down in section 87 of the Emergency Powers Act. The second decree on the use of powers under the Emergency Powers Act provides for the extension of the powers laid down in sections 86, 88, 93 and 94 of the Act.
Under the Emergency Powers Act, the Decree provides for the management and direction guidance of social welfare and healthcare units, the right of municipalities to waive the time limits for non-urgent care and the assessment of the need for social welfare services laid down in the Health Care Act, derogations from the provisions of the Working Hours Act on rest periods and overtime, and from the provisions of the Annual Holidays Act on the granting of annual holidays in healthcare and social services, rescue services, emergency response centres and the police, and the extension of the notice period for healthcare, rescue and emergency response centre workers, central government employees and municipal officials.
Both amendments will enter into force on 14 May 2020 and will remain in force until 30 June 2020. If the conditions for applying the decrees are no longer met, the decrees will be repealed before the end of June.
The current restrictive measures are, in nature, primarily very general and large-scale restrictions aimed at reducing physical contacts. The restrictive measures imposed and the recommendations issued have been effective in curbing the spread of the epidemic and protecting those belonging to risk groups. However, along with the benefits, restrictive measures also have harmful social and economic effects, and some measures restrict the exercise of fundamental rights. The economic, social and health impacts of the coronavirus epidemic and the related restrictive measures are significant and, in many respects, potentially long-lasting. To reduce the adverse effects of the epidemic and the restrictive measures, a number of support measures have already been decided in order to help people, communities and businesses in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
As Finland has so far succeeded well in curbing the progress of the epidemic, it is possible to move from extensive restrictive measures to implementing a hybrid strategy based on the “test, trace, isolate and treat” approach. The Government’s is still to try to prevent the spread of the virus in Finland, to safeguard the capacity of the healthcare system and to shield and protect people, especially those who are most at risk.
As restrictive measures are gradually removed, the development of the epidemic and the burden on the healthcare system will be closely monitored and assessed. The Government is committed to assessing its policies in the light of monitoring data and to making changes if necessary.
Finland will gradually open up as we move towards the summer. Our goal is to lift the restrictions in a controlled and gradual manner so that the disease situation remains under control, the carrying capacity of healthcare is not compromised and the lives and health of people at risk can be protected.
From 14 May, comprehensive school education and early childhood education and care will return to contact teaching in a controlled and gradual manner. At the same time, commuting at internal borders will be possible in the same way as at the western and northern borders. Outdoor recreational facilities will also be opened in line with the restrictions on gatherings. The restriction on gatherings of more than ten persons will remain in force until the end of May.
At the same time as comprehensive education and early childhood education and care are resumed, it is also possible to return to contact teaching at other levels of education. However, the Government recommends that universities, universities of applied sciences, upper secondary schools, vocational training institutes, liberal adult education and basic adult education institutes continue distance learning until the end of the semester. Education providers can decide for themselves the extent to which they will arrange contact teaching as necessary. In the summer, contact teaching will be arranged in line with the guidelines on hygiene and physical distancing.
As of 14 May, the statutory restrictions on border traffic will be lifted in cross-border traffic across the Schengen internal borders by allowing employment or commission-related commuting and other essential traffic. The purpose and conditions of the planned stay will be examined during border checks. Border control at internal borders will continue at land borders, ports and airports. The recommendation for shipping companies to suspend the sale of tickets for work-related travel will expire. For the time being, recreational travel abroad is not recommended, and the travel advice issued by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will be extended accordingly. Everyone has the right to leave Finland and all Finnish citizens have the right to return to Finland. The external borders will remain closed, with certain exceptions. Goods and freight transport, for example, will continue to be allowed. Finland considers it important that the lifting of the restrictions on border traffic be coordinated at the EU level.
As of 1 June, restaurants and cafés can reopen gradually and in a controlled manner. The limit on the number of persons at gatherings will be amended from 10 to 50 persons and the restriction will remain in force until further notice. From the beginning of June, indoor spaces and enclosed outdoor spaces may also reopen, provided that safety is ensured by limiting the number of visitors, maintaining safe distances and issuing hygiene guidelines.
Restaurant, café and bar closures have major economic ramifications that affect one particular sector of the economy. The gradual opening of premises to customers can begin at the start of June, provided that this is supported by the effects of lifting the current restrictions and by the subsequent general epidemiological assessment. This requires legislative amendments that would enable imposition of restrictions on, for example, the number of customers and the alcohol serving hours. Legislative proposals to that effect will be brought for the Government’s consideration on 13 May 2020. The current restrictions laid down in the Act on Accommodation and Catering Business activities and their validity are being assessed every two weeks as required by Parliament.
The restrictions on gatherings are based on the epidemiological assessment of the spread of the disease in situations where the number of physical contacts is high. Under the Communicable Diseases Act, the Regional State Administrative Agencies have the power to prohibit public events and gatherings for no more than one month at a time. Large public events with more than 500 people are prohibited until 31 July 2020 in line with the Government's decision.
Restrictions on gatherings are still necessary. Based on the epidemiological assessment and forecast, it is possible to ease the restrictions on the number of persons at public events and gatherings from the current 10 persons to a maximum of 50 from 1 June onwards until further notice. In addition, as a general guideline, the Government recommends avoiding gatherings of more than 50 persons at private events that are not considered public. These include private celebrations, cultural events, recreational events, sports events and religious events organised by the private and third sectors.
Sports competitions and series can be resumed in June with special arrangements
The public indoor facilities now closed will be reopened in a controlled and gradual manner from the beginning of June. These include national and municipal museums, theatres, libraries, hobby and leisure facilities, swimming pools and other sports facilities, youth facilities and clubs. Borrowing of books and other material from libraries will be permitted immediately. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the Ministry of Education and Culture are preparing a circular for the Regional State Administrative Agencies providing guidance on the hygiene and other requirements necessary to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in public premises and on restrictions on the number of visitors to the premises.
As concerns indoor spaces and enclosed outdoor spaces, such as amusement parks and zoos, safety will be ensured by limiting the number of visitors, ensuring safe distances and providing guidance on personal hygiene. It will therefore be therefore possible to have more than 50 persons in these premises, taking into account the above considerations.
Some of the restrictive measures will remain in force until further notice. For example, the recommendation on remote work and the restrictions on visits to healthcare and social welfare units will continue to be in force.
As a rule, remote work in line with the recommendations has worked out well, and the recommendation will continue to be in force for the time being. Continuing the recommendation is justified in order to reduce the rate of close contact and the risk of infection.
Based on the individual units’ decisions, visits to healthcare and social welfare units have been restricted under section 17 of the Communicable Diseases Act. The restrictions will remain in force until further notice. It is still possible to allow, on a case-by-case basis, the visits of asymptomatic family members of children and critically ill individuals, family members of those in hospice care and spouses or support persons in the maternity ward.
Detailed instructions on the protection of vulnerable groups and groups with an elevated risk of infection will be continued to improve and maintain client and patient safety. These practices are related, among other things, to visits to healthcare and social welfare units. New practices to enable safe social contacts will be promoted in care units, for instance.
The recommended instructions for the protection of population groups at higher risk of infection are upheld and reviewed so that they continue to effectively protect the population against infection. At the same time, it is essential to ensure that the requirements concerning the fundamental and human rights, the functional capacity and the social and economic needs of these population groups are respected and safeguarded.
The recommendation that persons over 70 years of age remain separate from physical contacts with other people as far as possible continues to be in force as a general guideline. However, the Government emphasises that those belonging to risk groups should use their own discretion in following the guideline.
The decisions to continue or dismantle restrictive measures are based on an overall assessment that takes into account epidemiological, legal and other societal aspects of epidemic management, such as social and economic aspects. The Constitutional Law Committee has emphasised that the overall harm to society caused by restrictive measures must be assessed in relation to the benefits achieved by them.
As we move from mitigating the spread of the virus to the next phase of progressively dismantling the restrictions, the responsibility and consideration of each individual, business and community will be further emphasised. The situation is still very serious. For this reason, each and every one of us must look after our own health and that of our fellow citizens. In the midst of all the restrictions and recommendations, what matters most is how we ourselves choose to act. So far, the Finnish people have acted very responsibly and I am confident that we will continue to do so in the future.