Foreign minister: Mass coronavirus testing could happen

Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa).
Foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa). Source: ERR

Mass coronavirus testing may be on the cards as part of the government's measures aimed at halting the virus' spread, foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) says.

Appearing on ETV political discussion show "Esimene stuudio" Tuesday evening, Reinsalu said that: "In my opinion, one element of an exit strategy is mass testing. This is what we are going to discuss with the crisis committee Friday, looking at running rapid tests, which are evidence-based, reliable, and to test a large portion of the population and actually get an overview of how much latency or concealed spread there is in society, and with this being certain that you can better control the virus' spread."

The decision that mass testing was a goal had already been made, Reinsalu went on.

"We made the fundamental decision today that we will set it as an objective. But we need to find opportunities from among the various providers, a conviction that it is evidence-based, and then step by step we can proceed in this way. The debate is still ahead." he said.

The foreign minister said the country is clearly still in the process of a deepening crisis, but the government has already launched an exit strategy.

"We have launched one plan. We have one team put together, where analysis is being carried out by various authorities. There are many aspects to this, of course. While we are talking today about an exit strategy, we are certainly not at a stage where we are talking about this crisis coming to an end. We are entering a crisis in the sense that this virus is in its propagation phase," Reinsalu added.

Reinsalu said that Estonia does not currently have the required resources for mass testing. "We are working on it. This task has been set," he noted, adding that the main focus at present is to obtain adequate personal protective equipment.

In future, Estonia should be able to produce such equipment itself, Reinsalu added.

As for restrictions, Reinsalu said the main consideration was getting out of the crisis, i.e. a stage where coronavirus was no longer spreading, before current restrictions could be eased.

"In exiting the crisis, I believe it is important to keep in mind that the prerequisite for this, even for the gradual relaxation of restrictions, is that the virus is not in its propagation phase," he said.

Relaxing restrictions piecemeal is one future option, he noted.

"One theory we also need to test using evidence-based analysis is whether it is possible to relax restrictions on specific sections or segments to see if this leads to further spread of the virus [or not]," he explained.

Reinsalu added that Professor Irja Lutsar, in her role as chair of the scientific council (Teadusnõukogu ), gave an overview to the government crisis committee on Tuesday, which demonstrated that the restrictions imposed by the government have fulfilled their purpose.

"The modeling we're doing right now shows that we would have actually had ten times more cases per day at present, rather than the current 30 cases (30 new cases were reported by the Health Boad March 30-31, with 36 reported in the previous 24 hours-ed.). These limitations have served our purpose; we've been able to check the virus together. This does not however mean it won't continue to spread," he said.

Cooperation with neighboring states needed

Another precondition, he said, is strong cooperation with neighboring countries. On this, the government has started consultations with Latvia and Finland, he said, in order to cooperate with them on, for instance, any opening up of borders in future.

Crossing the border from Latvia into Estonia, or arriving from Finland, would require a 14-day quarantine period, though key workers such as emergency service staff, drivers of trucks conveying essential goods, and diplomatic staff, are among those exempt from this stricture.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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