Justice minister: Government has power to make mask-wearing mandatory

Masks. Source: Valitsuse kommunikatsioonibüroo

While up to now, wearing a face mask has been recommended, but not mandatory, in Estonia, Minister of Justice, Raivo Aeg (Isamaa) has ordered judicial analysis as to whether the government has the right to oblige the public to wear face-masks, in the interests of public health in the face of growing COVID-19 rates. Aeg aid that the need may arise in the near future, if and when the virus continues to spread.

Aeg said that the government has discussed making masks mandatory for several times already, but it hasn't been clear if Estonian law allows for it, hence the judicial analysis, ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) reported Thursday.

The Health Board and the and the government do have the right to make mask-wearing mandatory, the report concluded, since during the first wave of coronavirus in spring, the government made the necessary law amendments.

However, if the Health Board doesn't consider wearing masks necessary, then Aeg said the government still has the right to overrule it and make such a decision. The minister said there is no such plan at the moment, however, but he did not rule out its being discussed in some areas of life or in some regions in the near future.

"Considering we have had outbreaks in Ida-Viru County, Harju County and especially in Tallinn, then why should we put a general obligation to wear a mask in Hiiumaa when we have not had an outbreak there," Aeg said.

Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise said that the dispute on this topic is still ongoing, and if it transpires that the law allows for the introduction of a mask obligation, nonetheless not everything has been decided yet, including where and what type of masks are needed as well as which sections of society would have to wear them. It is also necessary to clarify, on the basis of research, the pros and cons of mandatory mask-wearing, Madise added.

"But sometimes it is the case in science and protecting public health that what appears to be a good idea, when we come to study the causes, we can see that they don't exist in that way," Madise said.

Madise said that this has been proven by the experience of other European countries, where the obligation to wear a mask hasn't helped with avoiding a second wave.

Arkadi Popov, head of the ambulance center of the North-Estonian Regional Hospital (PERH), said that masks should be worn in locations where the number of cases is likely to be higher than normal, and also in public spaces and indoors.

Popov said that a mask only helps when it's worn correctly, which can be an issue in Estonia, as is public education on the issue as a whole.

"The culture of wearing the mask is very important; unfortunately, we have a long way to go for the public to understand why are they doing everything required, for what reason and how to go about these things," Popov said.

Martin Kadai, who led the emergency department of the Health Board during spring, before stepping down, said wearing a mask is in the same category, so far as public health goes, as hand-washing, and as such is something which should not be regulated by government order.

Kadai added that wearing a mask is not some kind of a magical panacea which could bring the pandemic to an end, and when making it mandatory, the concept that this could be for a duration in terms of years, rather than months, needs to be taken on board.

"When we talk about obligations, we run into a lot of problems: What type of masks are we talking about, what is the likelihood of the population fulfilling that obligation, how do we monitor compliance and what sanctions do we apply if people don't follow it? These considerations could lead to very different results, including those where people start to fulfill this obligation only on the surface. at the same time, it is not reasonable to make sometthing an 'obligation' that is fulfilled only when a police officer is in the vicinity," Kadai said.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte

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