Latvian PM: 'Baltic bubble' to cease to exist this Friday

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Estonian-Latvian border at Valga-Valka.
Estonian-Latvian border at Valga-Valka. Source: ERR

Since COVID-19 cases in Lithuania and Estonia continue to rise, the so-called "Baltic bubble" will cease to exist as of this Friday, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said at a government meeting on Wednesday.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia lifted their travel restrictions in May, enabling free movement of people within the three Baltic states, thus creating the "Baltic bubble". Citizens and residents of the Baltic states were allowed to travel within the "Baltic bubble" without self-isolating upon crossing the internal borders, provided that they had not been outside the Baltic states in the past 14 days, that they were not in self-isolation already and had no symptoms of respiratory illness. 

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics informed ministers that on Wednesday, September 2, the 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,00 population reached 16.28 in Lithuania and 14.72 in Estonia. 

He referred to his Baltic colleagues who have voiced concerns about the uptick in COVID-19 cases in their countries, asking at the same time if Latvia would agree to introduce a temporary regulation and exempt those arriving in Latvia from Lithuania and Estonia from 14-day self-isolation. 

The foreign minister indicated that if Latvia does not agree to such a temporary regulation, the government will have to decide how to deal with the situation in such closely connected border areas like Valka and Valga. 

Karins voiced regret that despite an earlier agreement, the Baltic states have been applying epidemiological safety requirements differently, which has resulted in higher COVID-19 incidence in Lithuania and Estonia. 

The prime minister said that he is against lifting the self-isolation requirement for people arriving from Lithuania. "As head of government, I do not support it. How can we justify an exemption of the self-isolation rule for one territory when this threatens our health," Karins said. 

At the same time, the prime minister admitted that the situation with the border areas has to be addressed, which the government might do at an extraordinary sitting this week.

Health Minister Ilze Vinkele agreed with the prime minister's position. 

In Latvia, most of the new COVID-19 cases or 33 percent are imported, most often related with trips from the UK, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia and France.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said the Latvian foreign minister said on Tuesday that they agreed to discuss changes to the rules of the Baltic bubble, but if no trilateral agreement is reached, coronavirus rules will be imposed on Estonia and Lithuania.

"It is in Estonia's interest to fully preserve this bubble, we submitted our proposals to change certain methods," Reinsalu told daily newsaper Postimees.

If the infection rate rises above 16 on Friday, a 14-day isolation requirement will apply to Estonians going to Latvia from Saturday. "This means that goods can move, but Latvia's rules must be followed - a health declaration must be completed and a two-week quarantine must be maintained," the minister said.

According to Reinsalu, this would be a blow to tourism from Latvia. "If we assume that people are law-abiding, they will most likely avoid visiting the country, upon returning from which they will have to be quarantined for two weeks," the minister said.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Helen Wright

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