Prime Minister speech in Parliament on decrees on use of powers under Emergency Powers Act on 8 March 2021. Changes possible during the speech.
Since last spring, our Government has been working to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to safeguard the capacity of the healthcare system and to protect people, especially those who are most at risk. At the earliest stages of the epidemic, Finland placed extensive restrictions on the activities of society. We have adapted our actions as the pandemic has progressed and have already succeeded in slowing down the spread of the virus on several occasions. We have made it through the first and second wave of the pandemic with less extensive health and economic damage than many other European countries. Now, we have to succeed for a third time.
Since the end of last year, new virus variants have exacerbated the COVID-19 situation in Europe, and the epidemic is worsening again in many countries. In Finland, too, the COVID-19 situation has deteriorated over the past few weeks. The virus variant from the UK is spreading faster and more aggressively than the original virus. It is more infectious and, according to some estimates, potentially more dangerous. This is why we must once again introduce extensive restrictive measures.
On 1 March 2021, the Government, together with the President of the Republic, declared a state of emergency in Finland as referred to in section 3, subsection 5 of the Emergency Powers Act. In other words, there is a state of emergency in the country due to a widespread outbreak of a serious infectious disease, the effect of which is comparable to a major disaster.
Finland has again introduced strict restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic. We are closing down a wide range of activities in society for three weeks. As part of these measures, Parliament has just approved the Government’s proposal to close restaurants to customers. The restrictions aim to minimise people-to-people contacts in order to reduce the number of infections and keep the epidemic under control.
The only effective way to slow the progress of the COVID-19 epidemic is to reduce the number of physical contacts between people. The next few days and weeks will show what the current restrictive measures can achieve. The Government estimates that regular powers alone will not be sufficient to keep the epidemic under control and safeguard the carrying capacity of the healthcare system. For this reason, on Friday 5 March, the Government adopted a decree on the use of powers under section 106, subsection 1 and section 107 of the Emergency Powers Act, along with a decree on the use of powers under sections 86 and 88 of the Act.
Sections 106 and 107 concern coordinating official communications and resolving questions on the division of powers between the authorities. Section 86 of the Emergency Powers Act has to do with the operations of healthcare of social welfare units. Section 88 of the Emergency Powers Act lays down provisions on healthcare and social welfare services and health protection.
In order to control the epidemic, we need to be able to resolve problems quickly and communicate clearly, consistently and in ways the public can understand. The Government is introducing the powers laid down in section 106, subsection 1 of the Emergency Powers Act in order to coordinate communications between different authorities and ensure citizen’ access to timely information.
More carefully coordinated communication will provide citizens and communities with clear and understandable information on the development of the epidemic, the actions taken by the authorities to combat COVID-19 and the reasons for these actions. Communication can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of restrictions and people’s willingness to comply with them, which, in turn, contributes to our ability to manage the epidemic.
Even under emergency conditions, each branch of government is responsible for communications within its own field of operations. By centralising the management of COVID-19 communications to the Prime Minister's Office, the Government aims to ensure that the entire central government is familiar with and has access to the strategic communication guidelines, including at the regional and local levels.
The Government does not propose establishing a State Communications Centre.
The Government has worked to ensure that, in the light of new information, we update our strategies and learn from our mistakes. The unclear situation at Helsinki Airport last spring went on for too long, and we should have been able to resolve it more quickly. The powers laid down in section 107 of the Emergency Powers Act allow for rapid decision-making related to the management of activities and to the powers or duties of different authorities in unclear situations. This would be necessary in situations where there is justifiable room for interpretation concerning the powers of the authorities. In such cases, the dispute would be resolved by the Government based on a proposal from the Prime Minister. The Government may also decide which central government agency will carry out a task if it is related to the mandate of more than one operating unit or if there are no specific provisions on the task in question.
Section 86 of the Emergency Powers Act concerns the operations of healthcare and social welfare units and gives the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the relevant Regional State Administrative Agency the power to make decisions obliging municipal and private service providers to modify their operations. Such decisions may be necessary if the COVID-19 epidemic weakens the functional capacity of the healthcare and social welfare service system to such an extent that the availability of services is significantly compromised. The decisions may be made on the condition that the measures already taken are not sufficient to ensure the availability of healthcare and social welfare services.
Under section 88 of the Emergency Powers Act, municipalities may be granted the right to deviate from the time limits for non-urgent healthcare in certain separately defined areas if this is necessary in order to provide urgent care. In this case, healthcare units may transfer resources from non-urgent care to urgent care if necessary. However, the waiving of time limits for non-urgent care must not endanger the health of the patient; patient safety must be the first priority in all circumstances. Furthermore, the right to deviate from the time limits does not affect the time limits for assessing the need for care.
These decrees on the use of powers would enter into force on 11 March 2021 and would remain in force until 30 April 2021. If Parliament approves the decrees issued by the Government, sections 106 and 107 of the Emergency Powers Act will be directly applicable. Under the powers conferred by section 86 of the Emergency Powers Act, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the Regional State Administrative Agency in the area in question may issue binding decisions on the operations of healthcare and social welfare units. Under section 88 of the Emergency Powers Act, a separate decree on the application of the Act will be submitted to Parliament concerning compliance with the time limits for access to non-urgent care. This decree will lay down provisions on the restrictions and conditions related to the scope of the powers.
In addition to the decrees on the use of powers being discussed today, it is also possible that the Government will have to introduce powers under other sections of the Emergency Powers Act and submit decrees on their use to Parliament later on.
I would like to thank all of the parliamentary parties for their joint commitment to overcoming this crisis. Over the past year, we have held several debates in Parliament about the epidemiological situation and the capacity of the healthcare system. Finland’s strength lies in our ability to cooperate constructively across government and opposition boundaries in times of national crisis. The Government wants to stay on this path of cooperation, and we will continue to keep the parliamentary groups informed and to discuss the situation and measures with you on a regular basis.
I would also like to thank the Finnish people for their commitment to complying with the restrictive measures. We are now fighting a virus that is spreading even faster than before. We can win this battle, but it will require participation and responsible action from all of us.