Health Board comms chief asked to resign after criticizing vaccine plan

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Patient receiving a vaccine (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Health Boards's head of communications Simmo Saar has been asked to leave his position after he anonymously criticized the state's coronavirus vaccination plan but was later identified, daily newspaper Postimees reported on Tuesday.

Saar told Postimees (link in English): "It is certainly not my intention here to unjustifiably criticize the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Health Board or the Government of the Republic. Actually, I'm worried. I am worried as a citizen, as a father, as a partner. When I look at how vaccination against the coronavirus is planned in Estonia, I find that it has been done too late, and when it is said today that there is a great plan, I will honestly say that it is not a plan. It is, at best, the starting point for a vaccination strategy."

"If we are talking today about the fact that we are developing a logistics procurement, while our family doctors have not received precise instructions on vaccination, the training is still needed, then I would say that we do not have a plan at the moment," Saar said.

Simmo Saar in February 2020. Source: Romi Hasa

According to him, the first vaccinations in December are propagandistic PR stunts and after that, there will probably be silence for a while, because the procurements need to be carried out, the details need to be worked out and the actual vaccination can most probably be seen starting from the spring.

Following an anonymous interview with the Kanal 2 television channel last week, Saar said that it has been a difficult time for him.

"Last week has undoubtedly been very difficult for me personally. While the program was broadcast on Monday, then Tuesday was mainly about deciphering the news clip to get the voice distortion from it. It was then concluded that there was no need to continue working with such a person, and it has now been suggested to me to start planning life in another sphere. No, I haven't been fired. I'm still the head of communications at the Health Board, but I've been told I should do something else," he said.

Head of the Health Board Üllar Lanno said trust in Saar has been shaken. Lanno said (link in Estonian): "I have been watching Simmo for a long time and I have long thought that he needs to rest, it is easy to overwork. I asked if he would not like sick leave or a vacation."

Kiik: Saar's claims either malicious or ignorant

Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center) deemed the accusations incomprehensible, insisting that Estonia has a plan for immunizing its population and that preparations for it are on schedule, Postimees reports.

Kiik, underscored in a phone interview on the Kuku radio that there is a vaccination plan that has been introduced at a press conference and has been approved by the government.

"It has been our wish and objective from the get-go to announce the vaccination plan when we have sufficient up-to-date information on vaccine developments, and not do it in the middle of the summer, when neither we of the European Union had this knowledge," the minister added.

"All this talk is frankly quite saddening because he is criticizing and undermining the work of his colleagues in the area of government of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The reality is that a lot of overtime and serious efforts have been made in health care in Estonia to keep the spread of the virus under control while also making preparations for vaccinations," he said.

The minister added that the necessary procurements have been carried out, and Estonia already has two vaccine refrigerators with more fridges on the way.

"From this perspective, all allegations and accusations claiming the opposite are confusing," Kiik said, adding that Saar's claims were either motivated by ill will or ignorance.

The first shipment of coronavirus vaccines to Estonia consists of 9,750 doses. The size of subsequent shipments depends on Estonia being able to reach an agreement on larger shipments. If no such agreement is reached, the doses will continue to be shipped in smaller numbers. The agreement also depends on the vaccine developer, which for the time being is Pfizer-BioNTech.

The first COVID-19 vaccine is planned to be administered in Estonia on December 27 with the first recipients being health care workers in Ida-Viru County, Tallinn and Tartu - regions where the spread of the virus is most extensive.

Journalists condemn Saar's forced resignation

The management board of the Association of Journalists deems the course of action by the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Health Board a violation of freedom of speech.

The association's leadership said the activities by the Health Board and the Ministry of Social Affairs aimed at revealing the whistle blower's identity and punishing him constitute a threat to source protection and to reliable journalism.

The management board of the journalists' association said the head of communication overstepping his powers by disclosing information that damages the reputation of a public authority cannot be the main issue in this situation.

"On the contrary - in this case, information was disclosed about a situation that may prove dangerous for the entire population. Revealing such information is everyone's obligation in a free society," the association said.

Editor's note: This article was updated to add comments from the Association of Journalists and again to add comments from Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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