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Government COVID-19 council opposes relaxing event capacity limits

Professor Irja Lutsar and social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center).
Professor Irja Lutsar and social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The government's coronavirus scientific council (Valitsuse teadusnõukoda) opposes lifting event capacity restrictions as proposed by culture minister Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) Friday.

The council was publicly backed by social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center) in this, continuing a tendency for the body – set up specifically to deal with the pandemic – to receive full government support, unlike the Health Board (Terviseamet), which has sometimes found itself at the receiving end of governmental criticism.

Lukas, whose remit includes sporting events as well as the arts, suggested removing the 50-percent capacity ceiling currently in place.

According to a report on ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Friday, however, the scientific council, headed up by Professor Irja Lutsar, does not agree with this in most cases, though said some exceptions could be made on a case-by-case basis.

One such upcoming case is the inaugural WRC rally due to take place in South Estonia in early September. Over ten thousand rally passes have been issued, in batches, and competing drivers in some cases come from countries currently defined as coronavirus high-risk.

Estonia has coped well with curbing its coronavirus spread and, following a localized outbreak centered on nightspots in Tartu from the second half of July to early August, the infection rate is back to exhibiting a downward trend, the scientific council, which held its first meeting Friday, following a summer break, said.

At the same time, the council conceded practical realities and pointed out it supports the fewest restrictions sensibly possible, including allowing scheduled hospital treatments, such as operations, to go ahead, as well as not jeopardizing the nationwide return to school on September 1.

"We've said this before: This virus is something we all need to learn to live with. That is also our position today [on the council]; we must live with this virus as best we can so one side should not destroy the other. While we would like to eradicate this virus, sadly, it's not that easy," Professor Lutsar told AK.

Scientific council versus Health Board

The scientific council has in the recent past taken somewhat of a moderate line on the coronavirus, opposing nationwide restrictions and making the wearing of face masks mandatory and downplaying the likelihood of the recent Tartu outbreak constituting a second wave, while at the same time recommending caution on the lifting of restrictions, at least so far as public events go.

The council has sometimes also disagreed with the Health Board (Terviseamet) on matters of public health and the coronavirus, but seems to have had the backing of the government to date.

The Health board, by contrast, was already under attack from the prime minister before the peak of the pandemic had passed, and through the course of summer has lost both its chief, Merike Jürilo, and her deputy. The Health Board has also taken a different, often opposing, stance from the scientific council on some of the key issues at stake: Making restrictions country-wide, the likelihood of a second wave and implementing mandatory facemask wearing in indoor, public areas.

Social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said that: "Scheduled treatment must continue, and instruction in education must in the main part continue in contact learning. Of course, there may be exceptions by county, or study level, and also perhaps by target group … but as for nationwide bans and restrictions, we'll try to establish as few of those as possible."

Kiik noted that such restrictions as remain will mostly focus on travel and public event audience numbers.

At present, indoor public events are limited to 1,500 spectators or 50 percent capacity – whichever is lower. Outdoor public events, such as this weekend's Arvamusfestival, can go to 2,000 spectators.

The scientific council as noted was set up in response to the pandemic, and has generally toed the government line. The Health Board is the state body primarily tasked with public health and which obviously predates the pandemic.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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