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Political statement by Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in the Riigikogu, 12 March 2020

12. March 2020 - 19:34

Dear President of the Riigikogu!
Honourable members of the Riigikogu!
Dear people of Estonia!

Currently, 464 COVID-19 virus tests have been conducted in Estonia and 16 people are known to have been infected. The Health Board is in close contact with them and the situation of the infected is good considering the circumstances. So far, the virus cases have been mainly related to travelling in risk areas and reports of infection due to contact did not appear until yesterday in Estonia.

The Health Board currently estimates the risk of individual cases of coronavirus reaching Estonia to be very high, the probability of a limited local spread of the disease to be medium to high, and the likelihood of widespread local spread of the disease remains low.

At the same time, we must be prepared for a rapid change in the situation and for the wider spread of the virus. Yesterday, the WHO assessed the COVID-19 status as a pandemic, a global epidemic. In the assessment, they expressed concern about the severity and rapid spread of the disease, which the organisation believes will require decisive international cooperation.

Our Health Board has already raised the preparedness level of the health system to number one in order to be prepared for negative developments. Raising preparedness means that ambulances and hospitals have begun to replenish supplies and expand coronavirus testing capabilities.

Alongside the health care system and the preparedness of the authorities, the personal contribution of each individual remains very important. Normal hygiene rules should be followed to prevent infection – wash hands and avoid contact with people with respiratory symptoms. In particular, we should think about our elderly loved ones and avoid visiting them when suffering from respiratory illnesses.

After returning from a risk area, you should monitor your health for 14 days and immediately contact a doctor if you have fever, cough, or breathing difficulties, seek advice from the family physician hotline, and call for an ambulance if necessary. Suspicion of coronavirus infection may be justified if a person has recently been in an area where the disease is spreading and has symptoms that are specific to the disease.

I would also point out that these and other recommendations of the Health Board must be carefully followed. You must spend 14 days at home and avoid going to the store, to the cinema or the theatre, and avoid meeting with your friends. You should also remind this to your children or parents, colleagues, neighbours, or friends if necessary. This is not the time to be modest – the experience of other countries shows that temporary isolation helps to control the spread of the virus most effectively.

According to the risk assessment of the Health Board, the areas currently at risk of coronavirus are the People’s Republic of China, Italy, Iran, and South Korea. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made a recommendation to avoid travelling to Japan, Singapore, France, Germany, Spain, Egypt, and Israel where possible. At the same time, the risk of being subject to quarantine or curfew restrictions in other countries remains.

All hospitals have been provided with guidelines for dealing with patients suspected of being infected with COVID-19. The Health Board has mapped the stockpiles of personal protective equipment for hospitals and ambulances, a procurement contract to replenish the stockpile of respirators from an Estonian manufacturer has been concluded, and we also participate in the joint procurement of personal protective equipment for 20 European Union Member States.

We have estimated that the number of beds, including intensive care beds in hospitals, is currently sufficient to deal with the possible spread of coronavirus in the general population. If the number of patients increases, the next level of preparedness can be employed, which can limit the availability of scheduled care and thereby increase the capacity of hospitals. In addition, in cooperation with the Health Board and the Estonian Health Insurance Fund, the State Agency of Medicines has been tasked with mapping the needs of critical medicines and submitting proposals for additional stocks.

In February and March, the government has been intensively monitoring and responding to the situation caused by the spread of coronavirus. The situation may change with hours and days. For us, the primary and most important task is to protect the health and well-being of our people.

To this end, the Government of the Republic of Estonia has set six goals:

1. to prevent further spread of the virus to Estonia;

2. to prevent the local spread of the virus in Estonia;

3. to ensure the capacity of the healthcare system to control the virus and treat the disease caused by it;

4. to raise people’s awareness of how to prevent the spread of the virus and the treatment of the disease caused by it;

5. to ensure that the population can cope with the indirect effects of the virus;

6. to ensure the functioning of the Estonian economy as normally as possible.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the danger of an emergency. Considering the current epidemiological situation in the world and the spread of coronavirus in Europe, growing threats to the Estonian economy, difficulties in the supply chains of the business sector, domestic and foreign policy challenges, and the need for a more operational management structure from various public authorities, I think it is safe to say we are actually dealing with an emergency. However, we will overcome it as a society and with the help of everyone.

This morning, the Government of the Republic decided to form a government commission to manage the handling of the COVID-19 virus situation and find solutions to the resulting public health and economic problems. It is the task of the commission to ensure that the virus-related situations are dealt with, to organise cooperation between the state and local governments in this field, and to coordinate the use of our resources and capabilities, taking into account the objectives set out above.

The commission is made up of the minister of education and research, the minister of justice, the minister of defence, the minister of economy and infrastructure, the minister of finance, the minister of the interior, the minister for social affairs, the minister for foreign affairs, and the secretary of state. Its head is the prime minister. The Government Office ensures the organisation of the work of the committee.

Following the government session, there was also a cabinet meeting where we decided on further measures, which are definitely not final:

• cruise ships will not be permitted to dock in Estonia until 1 May;

• follow the recommendations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when organising business trips and incoming visits of employees of state institutions, local governments, as well as private and non-profit sectors;

• advise applicants for public events permits in Estonia to postpone public events with more than 100 participants;

• obligate the Health Board to coordinate the authorisation of a public event with more than 100 participants and also assess compliance with the guidelines for permits already issued;

• postpone, as of today, all excursions to public authorities;

• launch the coronavirus hotline 1247 from 16 March at the latest.

We will certainly be ready to react to changes in the situation and risk assessments and to introduce new measures if necessary. The first meeting of the government commission will take place today at 2 p.m.

In all of this, it is very important to ensure that there is a balance between the freedoms of our people, the general functioning of the society, and the steps needed to contain the virus. The health crisis runs the risk of escalating into a broader crisis affecting our economy, people’s well-being, and their jobs.

There is close co-ordination and exchange of information between EU Member States and institutions to address these issues. I also proposed to my Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, and Swedish colleagues to establish a coordination mechanism between our offices to exchange information on national measures to control the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday, I also attended a video conference with the Heads of State and Government of the European Union, led by Charles Michel, President of the European Council. While risk assessments and measures to control the spread of the virus may differ from one Member State to another, there are many things we can learn from each other and do together.

It is very important to channel more resources into health care and research to speed up the development of the necessary medicines and vaccines. The European Commission has already supported this. We must also not forget the solidarity of the European Union and other countries, and we must refrain from restricting the export of medical supplies, which could be detrimental to the most vulnerable countries.

Honourable members of the Riigikogu, dear listeners!

The spread of the COVID-19 virus and the simultaneous fall in oil prices are seriously affecting the global and European economic situation. Therefore, there are several danger signs also for Estonia. The current economic forecasts are no longer valid, but making new predictions is extremely difficult in the current situation. Therefore, we must also be prepared for a significant deterioration in the economic environment or even an economic downturn. The government, together with other EU Member States and institutions, is doing its utmost to prevent a further worsening of the economic situation.

We can see that many sectors of the economy that are primarily tourism-related have already suffered losses due to the spread of coronavirus. For example, transportation or organising trips and events. Impacts due to a decline in private consumption or external demand may also occur. We therefore need to consider the situation and look at ways of mitigating the losses already sustained and of supporting economic growth.

For this, both Estonia and the European Union have many different tools that we can use. For example, we can support the sectors that have suffered loss through fiscal measures or increase potential public investment. Above all, we need fast-working, well-targeted steps, which, of course, need to be carefully considered.

In public finance terms, Estonia will not be in trouble because we have sufficient financial resources and, if necessary, a much greater capacity to borrow from other countries. In the event of a possible worsening of the situation, I consider it essential to focus on supporting and stimulating the Estonian economy rather than cutting back.

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has also said that they are ready to use every means to successfully survive the current setbacks in the European economy. The European Union is providing the Member States with more structural funds in advance due to the outbreak, so that they can accelerate support for health care, but also contribute to support small and medium-sized enterprises and the labour market.

During the videoconference debate on Tuesday, it was also said that decisive action was needed to give businesses confidence. This can be achieved, for example, with the state aid measure and the flexibility allowed by the Stability and Growth Pact, to ensure the competitiveness and security of enterprises in the labour market and to avoid long-term negative effects on our economy. Such steps and decisions are definitely in Estonia’s interest.

Dear people of Estonia!

Through our foreign representations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is monitoring measures imposed in other countries, updating travel warnings, and ensuring the continuity of representations in crisis areas. In addition, we are exploring ways to raise the issue of coronavirus in the UN Security Council.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ travel recommendations are not given lightly, but are based on two principles – citizens are informed of areas at high risk of infection with the virus. They also warn of potential travel bans related to the introduction of curfews in infected areas.

We must all respond with due care and responsibility to these travel recommendations. This applies not only to holidays but also to business trips. We have also decided in the Government Office to postpone or cancel all assignments abroad by the prime minister in the near future. The only trip he will go on is the European Council meeting scheduled for late March, which will certainly include measures to fight the coronavirus.

In case of unavoidable trips, it is important to register them through the channels of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that the state can provide effective consular assistance when needed and provide assistance and support in case of unexpected events. There has been one evacuation of an Estonian citizen since the outbreak of the virus, when a person staying in China was brought home. Our embassies are always ready to provide the assistance you need.

Honourable assembly members!

I would like to repeat the words of my good colleague and former Minister of Health and Labour Riina Sikkut yesterday at the Riigikogu that we are now moving from a normal way of doing things in health care and the economy towards a situation where emergency measures are taken. In such a situation, information, best knowledge, and the involvement of experts play an even more important role in mitigating risks, providing assistance, and preventing panic that actually causes more losses. This is certainly not a time for political battles but for cooperation, setting common priorities, and knowledge-based decision-making.

Therefore, I turn to all of you, dear members of the Riigikogu. Diseases are spread by people. Therefore, fighting them as a society does not depend on the membership of political parties or their worldview.

Thank you for being thoughtful in your communications and for supporting the state and the authorities in the steps taken so far. I am convinced that all of you have also thought about the same issues and considered similar solutions that have been on the agenda of the government debates and analysed their relevance and timeliness.

I urge you all to think about the current situation and come up with solutions. I mean parliamentary committees, factions, and individual members. It is certainly possible to formulate your proposals and possible solutions at the level of the Riigikogu’s Council of Elders, which would form an important and necessary contribution to countering the situation. I also thank you for the thoughts you have already shared, such as the appeal made by Kaja Kallas yesterday.

Finally, I am very grateful to all the people in Estonia and the authorities, who have been engaged in monitoring and responding to the spread of coronavirus. I am also thankful to all the health professionals and the Police and Border Guard Board who have been at the forefront of this fight.

I also remind you all to keep yourselves and your loved ones healthy and to think about your behaviour towards those around you. This is especially the case for older people at risk or other people with poorer health.

I assure you from the honourable Riigikogu that if we all work calmly together and individually, respect each other, and contribute as a society, we will overcome the current difficult situation.

I wish strength and health to the people of Estonia and to Estonia!