The worst thing that could happen in Estonia in terms of the COVID-19 virus is the infection spreading in hospitals and among medical staff which needs to be avoided at all costs, Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik said during the government's extraordinary press conference on Friday morning.
Kiik said the risk groups most vulnerable to the disease includes the elderly and people with chronic conditions, while the safety of medical staff also needs to be ensured.
"I would once again emphasize the ban on visiting hospitals and care homes as the consequences could be tragic there. On the other hand, we also need to spare healthcare resources. The worst thing that could happen would be the virus spreading in hospitals or medical workers being infected."
Kiik said the problem in Estonia, and throughout Europe, is shortage of protective equipment for medical workers, such as masks and goggles.
"Estonia is participating in a European joint tender for protective gear. Supply difficulties are affecting the whole of Europe. But as we know from Italy, one of worst blows there was medical staff contracting the virus due to a lack of proper equipment," Kiik said.
Answering ERR journalist Tiina Jaakson's question of why the government decided to close schools but not kindergartens and daycares, the social minister pointed to two reasons.
"While children are our most precious asset, the virus isn't nearly as dangerous for children as it is for adults and the elderly. Parents who have to work could have no other option but to send children to stay with grandparents, while the latter are most at risk from the virus. Secondly, we need to keep vital service providers active and make sure they aren't forced to stay home with children," Kiik explained.
The social minister said that it is up to local governments to decide whether to keep kindergartens open but did not rule out the need to close all preschool institutions at one point.
Minister of the Interior Mart Helme said that reorganization on the border started yesterday and more human resources will be diverted there on Friday. Helme said that checks are being carried out at border crossing points right now, while it is possible the entire "green border" will have to be controlled at one point for which purpose Defense League members and assistant police officers might be needed.
"We have decided to ask travelers to fill out a form. We are emulating Poland's model where checks are mandatory at all border crossing points. People coming from high-risk countries are checked more thoroughly. We will also be manning all border crossing points with medical staff. It is a major challenge, but we have mapped out where to find the human resource needed."
Asked by ERR about the details of quarantining people from risk areas, Helme said exact measures would be specified at a later time. The minister emphasized that informing people through travel agents and ticket sellers is vital to make sure foreigners are aware of the possibility of being quarantined.
Helme added it is possible the state will help people return to their country of origin if they choose not to be quarantined.
The minister said people will surely travel less, while the situation remains the most complicated in ports. He said the government considered stopping ferry traffic between Estonia and Sweden but decided against it as it would halt commerce and the import of vital goods, such as medicines.
"That is why we decided against such a drastic measure. That said, Tallink and Tallinn Airport have been good partners. The ferry operator will stop selling cruise tickets today, meaning that the number of so-called pleasure passengers will fall considerably," Helme said.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu said everything boils down to the question of how to contain the virus coming into Estonia and spreading in Estonia.
"The fewer contacts between people, the less likely the virus is to spread. Analyzing international experience, that is what precautions are aiming for everywhere. And if we don't take these precautions now, we might need much more serious restrictions soon," the foreign minister said.
Reinsalu urged people not to travel outside Estonia and people from other countries not to come to Estonia.
"Postpone your trip or we'll be forced to quarantine you," Reinsalu said.
Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said Estonia has sufficient food reserves and people do not need to queue in shops. The PM said his office has talked to major supermarket chains that have assured the government that some shelves were empty on Wednesday not because of lack of food but due to the fact shops could not put goods on display fast enough.
"As far as I have been told, shelves will be restocked today. There is no cause for panic. People do not have to rush to the shop and queue to get to the cashier. However, I understand if people want to be cautious and stockpile certain good just to be safe," the PM said.
Interior Minister Mart Helme added the Rescue Board welcomes people taking precautions and purchasing extra supplies as past campaigns have not been successful.
Helme said people who are quarantined at home must still have access to necessities, such as food.
"We have decided that people who have no loved ones or neighbors need to be helped by local government social workers. They will not be left helpless in their apartments or houses."
The interior minister also pointed out that closed schools have meant children roaming the streets and gathering at malls in other countries.
"Cooperation with security firms is key here. It allows us to intervene and control the situation and also send them home. Make sure parents and schools are informed."
The most drastic measure at the authorities' disposal is mobile positioning of people who have been ordered to isolate themselves but haven't complied. Helme said that while it is a legal measure in Estonia, it can only be used in certain situations.
Asked whether the government could introduce additional measures, Tanel Kiik gave three examples.
"Firstly, we have recommended state agencies and companies to switch to remote work, while it might be necessary for the government to introduce restrictions on working collectives moving forward. Secondly, gyms and spas that can remain open for now – it is not out of the question we will have to take measures there too. Thirdly, other measures could be introduced, such as a separate virology task force and recommendations it might make," Kiik said.
Prime Minister Ratas added that the government is prepared to take all manner of additional measures to limit close contact between people. For example, as concerns ferry traffic.
"And if the social minister pointed to gyms and spas, the same goes for day centers which local governments might decide to close."
Ratas said that an economic measures package also has to be put together with help from the banking sector and Kredex.
"We are looking to soften the looming recession. There are certain guarantees the government can give. To retain jobs, which is why we do not believe austerity is the right approach. The European Union is also proposing tools, such as state aid that will be exempt from the fiscal balance rule. Some countries have already applied for it," Ratas said.
Emergency situation management
The question of why the prime minister is in charge of the emergency situation saw Ratas answer that the government paid this matter special attention, while the decision was supported by both the justice chancellor and the state secretary.
Social Minister Kiik added that such a solution is the most operative as different people running the government and the emergency situation would only cause confusion and cost precious time.
How long will the emergency situation last?
The PM said that the emergency situation will remain in effect until May 1 unless the government decides otherwise.
"Should the spread of the virus slow and the situation normalize, the government is not interested in maintaining the emergency situation. We will lift it as soon as possible.
Tanel Kiik added that while no one wants the emergency to last one day longer than is needed, it must not be lifted a day early either.
Editor: Marcus Turovski