Mr Speaker, the aim of the Government is to slow down and prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Finland, to safeguard the resource capacity and resilience of our healthcare system throughout the country, and to protect people, especially those at risk.
We are working to slow down and prevent the progression of the epidemic by taking restrictive measures to reduce person-to-person contacts and movement. In order to succeed, we need the help of the Finnish people. Everyone must do their part to comply with the recommendations and restrictions in order to curb the spread of the virus. Each of us is responsible for protecting our own health and the health of our loved ones and other people in society. As with other crises we have faced, Finland will make it through this if we work together.
We have been monitoring the spread of the coronavirus closely since the beginning of the year. All parliamentary groups have been informed of the situation, and an announcement from the Prime Minister on Finland’s preparedness for the outbreak was already delivered to Parliament in February. The novel coronavirus was added to the list of generally hazardous communicable diseases by Government Decree on 14 February. At the start of March the Government declared that public events should be cancelled until the end of May, that close contact should be limited in order to protect those at risk, that people should work from home wherever possible, that travel from outbreak areas should be avoided in order to protect those at risk, that those returning from outbreak areas should self-isolate for two weeks and that COVID-19 testing should be increased.
On 16 March, the Government, in cooperation with the President of the Republic, declared a state of emergency in Finland over the coronavirus pandemic.
On the same day, the Government decided on a number of new measures. These included decisions on suspending contact teaching in different levels of education, on restricting gatherings in public places to no more than ten people, on the closure of public buildings such as libraries, museums and sports and recreational facilities, and on prohibiting visits to older people and other risk groups in housing service facilities, care institutions, healthcare units and hospitals. Private and third sector operators and religious communities were also recommended to close their premises. Finland began preparations for reintroducing border control along its borders, and it was also decided to suspend passenger traffic. Guidance was issued requiring people over 70 years of age to avoid close contact with others.
On 17 March, the Government submitted two decrees to Parliament on the use of specified powers under the Emergency Powers Act. The provisions made it possible, for example, to restrict the sale of medicines, goods and services used in healthcare and to intervene in the provision of education and training and the provision of healthcare and social welfare services. They also extended notice periods for staff in healthcare, social welfare services, rescue services and emergency response centres.
On Friday 20 March, the Government presented measures for securing jobs and a massive 15 billion euro package for supporting businesses and people. Together with Parliament’s Finance Committee, the Government significantly increased direct support for small and medium-sized businesses to help them through this crisis period.
On Tuesday 24 March, the Government submitted a legislative proposal to Parliament on the closure of restaurants, cafes and licensed premises for a fixed term in order to prevent close contact between customers. In connection with the same package, the Government decree required by Parliament was issued yesterday.
On Wednesday 25 March, the Government issued a decree to Parliament on the introduction of the powers laid down in section 118 of the Emergency Powers Act, and on 27 March the decree was submitted to Parliament in revised form. Parliament adopted the decree on the same day. The decree restricts the movement of people into and out of the Region of Uusimaa until 19 April.
On Monday of this week, the Government decided to begin preparations to tighten the control of border traffic along the northern and western borders as a matter of urgency, and the issue is currently being discussed with our neighbouring countries. The Government also decided to cease maritime passenger traffic, with the exception of freight and goods transport. Discussions are still taking place with the Åland Islands and neighbouring countries.
In addition, as decided by the Government, sampling and testing will be further increased in Finland to identify cases of the coronavirus and help curb the epidemic. Healthcare and social welfare employees must always be tested if there is even the slightest suspicion of illness. With this in mind, the rate of testing has been systematically increased.
The restrictions on movement and other measures already in place are estimated to have slowed down the spread of the virus within the population. However, according to an assessment by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the National Institute for Health and Welfare, it will be necessary to continue the restrictive measures and keep the guidelines in force even after 13 April.
The measures are working, and there are strong grounds for continuing them. Therefore, in the Government’s view, the restrictive measures should remain in effect until 13 May 2020.
The Government has also issued decrees to Parliament on the continued exercise of powers under the Emergency Powers Act. These decrees will continue the measures previously decided by the Government, the decrees for which will expire on 13 April 2020. With the proposed decrees, the exercise of powers is extended until 13 May 2020.
In connection with the measures, a total of four Government decrees have been issued:
the Government decree on the extension of the powers laid down in sections 86, 88, 93, 94 and 109 of the Emergency Powers Act,
the decree on the extension of the powers laid down in section 87 of the Emergency Powers Act,
the decree on the use of the powers laid down in section 87 of the Emergency Powers Act,
and the decree on the use of the powers laid down in section 95, paragraph 2 of the Emergency Powers Act and on the extension of the application of sections 96–103.
The Government wishes to continue to impose restrictions on contact teaching at different levels of education. This means that the exceptional arrangements for education will be extended until 13 May. Teaching will mainly continue in the form of distance learning. The Government still recommends that children in early childhood education and care, pre-primary education and years one, two and three of comprehensive school education stay at home, if possible.
The decrees extend the use of the powers laid down in the Emergency Powers Act to direct social welfare and healthcare units. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the regional state administrative agency are prepared, where necessary, to take binding decisions quickly on adjusting the operations of healthcare and social welfare units.
Municipalities will also continue to have the right to deviate from the time limits for providing non-urgent healthcare. In social welfare services, the decree will be clarified to allow municipalities to disregard the time limit for starting a service needs assessment.
In addition, the Government will extend the validity of the decree allowing employers to respond to a shortage of personnel caused by the virus outbreak. Employers may temporarily derogate from working hours and annual holidays arrangements in healthcare and social welfare services, rescue services, emergency response centres and police service.
While the Government has issued a decree extending the powers to restrict the sale of medicinal products, goods and services used in healthcare, it has also issued a decree to Parliament expanding the powers laid down in section 87 of the Emergency Powers Act, in other words, a new decree on the use of powers laid down in the Act. The aim is to ensure the availability of medicinal products and essential medical supplies as well as the functioning of the distribution chain in Finland.
We will continue to monitor the progress of the epidemic closely. The necessity and urgency of measures will be reviewed if the epidemiological situation changes substantially. If the conditions for applying the decrees are no longer met, the decrees will be repealed before 13 May.