Prime minister: Government did not act unilaterally in issuing restrictions

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Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Government restrictions were made only after consulting with the experts, the prime minister said at a press conference Thursday which also set out coronavirus restrictions for the rest of this year.

These will include virtual lock-down in Ida-Viru County, but sporting and leisure activities will be permitted in small groups everywhere else.

Additionally, schools, though they have to close from Monday, can choose for themselves whether or not they want to engage in remote learning from Monday to what would have been the end of term.

The government also pledged support measures for businesses hit by the latest raft of restrictions, though not to the full extent of lost business.

Ratas: Cabinet has taken proposals of scientific advisory council into account

Speaking at the regular Thursday government press conference, conducted via video link, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) denied that the government had acted unilaterally in its coronavirus restrictions decisions, adding that it always heeds recommendations from the scientific advisory council – a council it set up itself - headed up by Professor Irja Lutsar of the University of Tartu.

The latest round of restrictions, which include closing schools for Christmas from next Monday and were officially approved Thursday, were the result of earlier measures not having enough impact on the coronavirus rate.

Ratas explained the time-line of the restrictions' roll-out as follows: "The scientific advisory council put its proposals before the government between eight and ten o'clock on Tuesday."

"We took note of that information, and within 24 hours we managed to agree in principle within the government, and in collaboration with the scientific advisory council and the Health Board, on the new restrictions," the prime minister went on, adding that this pace was in his view a rapid one.

Closure of sports, leisure activities confined to Ida-Viru County

Also announced at Thursday's press conference was that sports and hobby activities would not be closed down nationwide, but merely in Ida-Viru County, the worst-hit region in the pandemic at present.

A government order had to be changed to facilitate the measure in this way, Ratas said.

"This means [sports and leisure activities can take place] in groups of up to ten people, including the instructor," the prime minister went on.

In Ida-Viru County, sports and leisure coaching or hobby-related tuition can only take place on a one-to-one basis, with a few exceptions concerning family members and the care of children with special needs. Entertainment and leisure facilities including nightclubs, spas and hotels are closed for three weeks, while only trade-related vehicles and their occupants will be able to cross the border from the Russian Federation.

Education minister: Up to schools how to spend next two weeks

Also appearing at the press conference was education minister Jaak Aab (Center), who said while schools will be closed from Monday December 14, as per Wednesday's announcement, it was up to administrators how the time from then until Christmas itself would be spent – in other words remote learning is possible.

The Christmas break proper starts on its usual date just a couple of days before Christmas itself (which in Estonia is celebrated on December 24); Aab said that older pupils – from the last grade of elementary school – could perhaps conduct lessons online, while for younger children the Christmas holidays in effect start at the weekend.

Aab said that the decision had been made unanimously; finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) chimed in to say that the one-and-a-half to two weeks "extra" will later need to be taken off the summer vacation.

Aab reiterated the hope that by January 11, the official start of the next term, the coronavirus rate will have subsided enough to allow a return to school.

Churches continue with 50 percent

Jüri Ratas confirmed one of the more controversial exceptions to the measures, whereby churches and other religious buildings can continue to function provided they follow the 50-percent occupancy rule, the 2+2 rule and provide masks and disinfectants.

Ratas said that he himself had put the exemption on the table, and noted that churches provide a particular spiritual function, particularly at this time of year and particularly during a pandemic.

Critics had questioned why churches could still function if schools and businesses faced stricter restrictions.

Support measures for businesses to be discussed next week

Speaking of businesses, the government will talk about potential compensation, particularly in Ida-Viru County, the area facing the most stringent regulations, next week.

Ratas said: "Of course the government will discuss compensation mechanisms by which financial support to the private sector can be provided, [in a situation] where it was the government itself which imposed the restrictions."

Finance minister Mart Helme said that the compensating would not wholly match the lost business, with a formula to be devised next week.

Helme said: "But this compensation mechanism will definitely not be tantamount to as situation where, if I have a spa or a hotel sold out for Christmas [and which is now empty], that all lost funds must be compensated. This is definitely not possible on such a scale."

Minister: Not possible to establish reserve of healthcare workers

During social affairs minister Tanel Kiik's (Center) turn to speak, the minister said that a cadre of reserve healthcare workers would not be forthcoming during th crisis, given the length of time training takes

An exchange of resources between hospitals, as has been happening so far, would be the way forward, Kiik said.

This was particularly the case given that there was no desire to cancel scheduled treatments as happened in spring.

Kiik said: "Unlike in spring, the wish at present is also to go on with scheduled treatments, and this is putting a bigger pressure on the healthcare system. The aim is to offer the best treatment to everyone - at healthcare institutions and care institutions alike."

Government green-lights amendment eliminating impact of coronavirus on parental benefits

Finally, the government has also given the go-ahead to a legal amendment which would change, temporarily, the basis on which parental benefit sizes are calculated, in order to alleviate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on families about to have a child.

The measure in fact runs through to the end of 2023.

About 3 percent of families about to have a child from January 1 next year onwards are the intended recipients of the benefit; the amendment is estimated to result in additional costs a little under €2 million a year 2021-2023, plus €63,000 in costs for the development of IT systems, which will be funded from government reserves.

The bill seeks to mitigate the socio-economic impacts on families as a result of the pandemic, spokespeople for the government said, and will see the period during which a person is registered as unemployed with the Unemployment Insurance Fund (Töötukassa) excluded from the total period in calculating parental benefits.

Under current regulations, only the period of time spent on sick leave is left out of the calculation period. 

The measure would be temporary, for children born between January 1 2021 and December 31 2023, modified to March 1 2020 to February 28 2023, to take into account social tax in the 21 calendar months prior to the birth of the child, minus nine months of pregnancy, in other words the basis on which benefits are calculated.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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