Riigikogu committee MPs concerned over state powers post-emergency ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Health Board building on Paldiski mnt in Tallinn.
Health Board building on Paldiski mnt in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The Riigikogu's social affairs committee has chosen to supplement a draft law amending current law which the government is pursuing, with amends to four more acts. The opposition opposes the draft in its current form, having expressed concerns over government involvement in emergency agencies and bodies, with greater powers going to both the government and the Health Board (Terviseamet) following the end fo the current coronavirus emergency situation.

The picture is further affected by the legal status of the emergency situation as well as the legally defined situation which is likely to follow it; the government itself says the latter would hamper it in wanting to declare any future emergency situations, should the need arise due to a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Social affairs committee chair Tõnis Mölder, from the Center Party, which is in office, said the goal is to move away from the emergency situation (eriolukord) to, by May 18, another, less severe situation defined under the Emergency Act as a "hädaolukord", or crisis situation, if the pandemic continues to subside.

Switch to new situation would not divest government, health authority of powers

This would not mean any transfer of management away from the executive, however, Mölder added.

"Central management in the emergency situation will remain with the government. The goal is that the current restrictions that help us fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus can also be applied in the emergency."

Opposition MP Helmen Kütt (SDE), who is social affairs committee vice-chair, said that the opposition could not support the bill as the original purpose and content of the bill as it had previously been under consideration had completely transformed, adding this course of proceedings did not comply with the Riigikogu Rules of Procedure Act.

"Consequently, I proposed that the social affairs committee initiate the bill itself and process it correctly," said Kütt. "Unfortunately, however, the coalition deputies simply voted down the possibility of having this correct procedure."

Social affairs minister: Amends would make future crisis management easier

Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) has said that the amendments to the law will create greater legal clarity in the management of emergencies, and provide the government with more effective opportunities for managing proceedings after the end of the current emergency situation.

"In the course of this particular crisis, we have seen cases where different lawyers have different judgments as to who has the right to make one decision or another," Kiik said, adding that disputes during a crisis were not a good thing and the government's role needs to be clearly defined and secure in connection with the health and medical sector during the crisis.

Kiik added that currently the rights of the head of the emergency situation (i.e. Jüri Ratas) arose when the state of emergency was declared. 

"The government is in a bind: if it wanted to make its own decisions, it is necessary to establish an emergency situation (eriolukord-ed.) and choose a leader [of this]. A crisis situation (hädaolukord-ed.) would not, however, allow for this."

Opposition wants to amend four futher acts

The Riigikogu committee opted to supplement the draft law amending the Medical Devices Act and related acts with regulation of several acts: The Emergency Act, the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act, the Health Services Organization Act and the Health Insurance Act.

Mölder added that the draft confers certain rights on the Health Board in the event of an epidemic of communicable diseases, for example, preventing the movement of people at risk of infection and, if necessary, closing schools and child and welfare institutions.

SDE MP Helmen Kütt said that another concern had been the levels of potential fines added to the legal basis when it came to violating quarantine, adding that no explanation on this had been provided to the commission when the draft was presented.

The committee opted to refer the draft to plenary on May 6, proposing to hold the first reading then.

COVID-19 currently not on list of notably dangerous communicable diseases

At present, the law on the prevention and control of communicable diseases only deals with particularly dangerous variants for which quarantine and other restrictions can be used, as in the case of COVID-19,

However, by its very nature as a new strain of virus, COVID-19 is not currently on the list of notably dangerous communicable diseases, prompting a desired to include in the law the concept of a novel dangerous infectious disease, which would be equated with the particularly dangerous infectious diseases already listed.

Definitions are necessary in order to make it clear in the case of a novel dangerous infectious disease which control measures may be applied to it. 

Whether COVID-19 will find its place in the list of particularly dangerous infectious diseases will become clearer over time, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

Stricter measures are, in the opinion of the bill's drafters, appropriate in the case of an infectious disease which is both novel and dangerous, and for which there is still a limited amount of data on the mode of transmission, incubation, treatment etc., and the state needs take steps to protect human health.

In order for a virus or other illness to be considered a novel dangerous infectious disease, it needs to be highly contagious, have the potential to spread rapidly and extensively and/ or be severe or life-threatening, plus an absence of any treatment or effective treatment for the disease. its Its incidence must also exceed hospitals' current capacities. 

COVID-19 has ticked most or all of the above boxes.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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