Merike Jürilo, who announced her resignation as Health Board director on Thursday, and Minister of Social affairs Tanel Kiik (Center), whose withdrawal of public support for Jürilo was reported by daily Postimees Wednesday, held a joint press conference to give their sides of the story.
The political nature of the development and, in particular, whether Kiik threw Jürilo under the bus in order to prevent himself being further isolated given leading government members, including the prime minister, have criticized the Health Board's actions in the coronavirus crisis since April, and a clash of worldviews between Kiik and the coalition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), was touched on in an earlier ERR interview with Tanel Kiik.
"No raindrop holds itself responsible for a flood," Tanel Kiik said, speaking at a joint press conference with Merike Jürilo Thursday afternoon (see gallery).
"We met with the head of the Health Board several times at the end of May and in June, and agreed that in order to prepare for the next crisis without the unnecessary back-drop and preconceptions, i.e. a climate of mistrust, it is better that Merike Jürilo resigns."
However, Jürilo said the allegations Kiik had recommended she resign for almost a month was not the case.
"No, we haven't been meeting repeatedly for a month to hear if I was going yet - it wasn't like that," Jürilo said at the conference, adding the final assumption of non-cooperation only arose last week, so far as she and the minister – who had long been seen as a supporter of Jürilo's at a time when the Health Board faced criticism from the highest levels of government – went.
In the Postimees interview (link in Estonian), which was published online on Wednesday evening, Kiik said that cooperation and trust between the government and the Health Board had ground to a halt.
The Health Board falls under the Ministry of Social Affairs' remit.
While Kiik did not name Jürilo by name in the interview, he noted the board had only one head.
Jürilo: Nothing new emerged in recent days that wasn't known about before
In an interview given to ERR before the press conference, Merike Jürilo said the needs and issues of the Health Board and the health care sector as a whole, during the pandemic and looking ahead to summer and fall, had been at discussed at length, meaning nothing had changed in the past few days.
"All of these issues have been discussed and they should come as no surprise to anyone here," she said.
As to the question whether her resignation had been encouraged as political expediency on the part of Tanel Kiik – in an effort to avoid being isolated in his support for Jürilo – she said she did not know.
"You would have to ask the minister yourself. It's very difficult for me to comment on. We are in this situation now, and we need to move on in a smarter way from here."
When asked who might replace her, Jürilo said putting the Estonian public first and foremost was the most important thing.
"This is again difficult to evaluate. Based on my core values, it is important to be a person who acts and delivers every day in order to make life safe and better for every Estonian person. So that the public gets the help that they need. Everything else is irrelevant. In the executive agency, i.e. the Health Board, we need to act rather than just to talk."
Of another issue which only came to light recently - several thousand rapid antibody tests donated to the government which the Health Board did not believe needed to be used - Jürilo again said she didn't have enough information.
"I don't know what has become of all these test kits. We have used the tests that were gifted to the Health Board accordingly. As for the rest, I have no information. I must confess that these rapid antibody tests constitute a very, very small part of my workspace, and there are many more important issues and topics that really affect the life and health of the Estonian people," she said.
As reported on ERR News, businessmen Tarvi Olbrei, Parvel Pruunsild and Alari Aho recently donated 50,000 coronavirus rapid tests to the state, and are now saying both the Health Board and Estonian politicians had been duplicitous in sending nearly half (20,000) of these overseas.
Kiik: I wanted to resolve the matter peaceably
Tanel Kiik also gave an interview to ERR Thursday to give his side of the story.
"I would like to commend the Health Board for its work and contribution during the coronavirus crisis," Kiik said. "A lot of work has been done, the virus has been brought under control and any potential new wave of the virus is being prepared."
Kiik also responded to the political aspect of the dispute and whether his job was on the line.
"The fact that I disagree with EKRE is a reality, I would say," Kiik said.
Kiik has in the past tussled with leading EKRE members on the issue of funding for LGBT+ organizations – again something which falls under the Ministry of Social Affairs – and related minority issues.
"But in the Republic of Estonia, a minister is appointed by the president at the proposal of the prime minister. I can only be recalled by the prime minister and also by a majority in the Riigikogu, but not by the one party," he said.
Kiik reiterated that he had met several times with Jürilo in the past few weeks.
"My desire from the outset was to resolve this politely and in a substantive way, and not to remove anyone from office with robust steps. I wanted to discuss the issues, and I met Merike Jürilo four times in the last four weeks.
"The fact that things went so far was a set of problems made up of several smaller aspects. There have been minor issues, communication disruptions and omissions which have contributed to a climate of mistrust between the government and the health service. These changes were necessary in order to maintain a good pace and understanding ahead of any future possible crisis. Merike Jürilo's contribution has been important, and will certainly continue to be challenged in the field of health as well as in the public sector in general."
In response to Jürilo's rejection of the claim the pair had discussed her position as Health Board chief, Kiik said they had.
"The first time we touched on the issue of continuing, or not continuing, in the post, was on June 1. We have, in fact, said this before. This assessment of mine was an honest answer to a question from a Postimees journalist concerning the issue of trust between the Health Board and the government."
Ultimately, Kiik also took the opportunity to say the media had played a role in fomenting Thursday's outcome.
"I'd like to remind you that the media has also heavily criticized the Health Board, and many of these criticisms have, in my view, been unfair. It is not just politicians who have been criticized, there have been others. I myself have been in a position where there is no need to look for culprits at the height of the crisis. Tensions around a number of small things have now led to a situation where new opportunities need to be found for the best cooperation during the next crisis."
With regard to a potential replacement for Jürilo, Kiik said that the State Chancellery's top management selection committee would be holding a competitive process shortly, with Jürilo remaining in her post as acting director of the Health Board until her last working day.
A new Health Board chief should be found during the summer, he said.
Editor: Andrew Whyte