Outgoing foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) has criticized a move by the government of Estonia's northern neighbor, Finland, in reinstating tougher border restrictions similar to those imposed in spring last year.
The Finnish border restriction comes amid fears of more potent strains of the COVID-19 virus entering the country.
The new rules, which enter into force next Wednesday and remain in place for a month, will mean only key workers providing essential services can enter the country. Estonian citizens and residents make up a significant proportion of Finland's workforce, meaning the border closure will have a major effect on those living and working in Finland, as well as in Estonia.
Reinsalu told ERR Friday that: "It (the border closure - ed.) is certainly not acceptable in the view of the Estonian government. We must definitely look for alternatives."
"It does not make sense for us to return to the so-called working model of the during last spring's first coronavirus crisis wave ," he added.
Travel bar exemptions similar to those issued by Finland in spring
Nonetheless, exemptions similar to those in spring will see the borders still open to key workers in the healthcare sector, truck drivers and others engaged in ferrying essential supplies, most students, the diplomatic corps, and several categories of compassionate exemptions.
Finland's interior minister Maria Ohisalo (Green League) said at a press conference Friday that: "Our goal is to reduce traffic at the borders so that it is possible to test everyone coming across the border," Ohisalo said," Finnish public broadcaster Yle's English-language page reported.
Ohisalo added that the measures were required to ensure health authorities have sufficient capacity to test all travelers and, if necessary, recommend quarantining Yle reports.
Social Services Minister Krista Kiuru (SDP) said the restrictions enter into effect Wednesday, 27 January, and will remain in place for 30 days, I.e. until 25 February.
Kiruru said. "We have already had a taste of the power of the mutated strains. The volume of travel must be reduced. Testing will be extended to all border crossing points and all passengers will be directed to take a test. Implementation will begin immediately."
Over 80 cases of 'British' and 'South African' coronavirus strains found in Finland so far
Finland's Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has so far identified a reported total of 86 cases of the so-called British and/or South African variants, thought to be more virulent that other strains of COVID-19, in Finland. No cases of these strains have been detected in Estonia to date.
As in spring, thousands of Estonian citizens working in Finland who do not carry Finnish citizenship or residency must make the decision between now and Wednesday night, which side of the Gulf of Finland to stay on.
One man all-too-familiar with the dilemma is ERR journalist and Finland correspondent Rain Kooli.
Kooli said:"How long all of this lasts is an important question. According to current estimates, it will be four to five weeks, or about a month. Then the situation will be re-examined, as to whether things are better with the coronavirus or not."
Kooli added that Finland's authorities have been talking for several months about boosting testing capacities for those entering the country, which means Friday's announcement suggests the testing capacity has not reached a satisfactory level for Finnish authorities, hence the decision made to curb the number of passengers arriving instead.
Around 30,000 people traveling on Tallinn-Helsinki ferry per week
So far this year, around 30,000 individual trips per week have been made, by ferry, from Tallinn to Helsinki, with a significant proportion of travelers being employed in the construction industry, the healthcare sector – particularly care homes – and in the service sector.
Three main ferry operators, Tallink, Viking and Eckerö, provide regular cross-gulf services. Paavo Nõgene, CEO of the Tallink, also noted the fact of the restrictions on his social media account Friday, noting Finnish authorities will only admit those workers they see as essential.
Jüri Ratas, Sanna Marin discussed matter Thursday evening
The news was not a bolt out of the blue; Finland's government had been due to discuss the issue Friday, and outgoing Estonian prime minister Jüri Ratas (Center) spoke to his Finnish counterpart, Sanna Marin (SDP), Thursday evening, during an off-schedule European Council meeting conducted remotely and held precisely to discuss the virus, restrictions and vaccinations.
Finland's interior minister Maria Ohisalo noted that for Finnish citizens, freedom of movement in and out of the country is a constitutional right which cannot be curbed, meaning they are not affected by the development – both Finland and Estonia are in the Schengen Area of free movement. Foreign nationals registered as resident in Finland were reported Thursday as still eligible to cross the border also.
Ohisalo added that for everyone else, crossing the border for any but absolutely essential reasons should not take place.
"We would not take such drastic restrictive actions unless they were absolutely necessary," she said.
Urmas Reinsalu: Finnish government has not acted in acceptable manner
Estonia's outgoing foreign minister, Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) listed the categories of workers and individuals who can still enter Finland from Estonia, or as Estonian citizens. These are:
- Health care workers, including first responders.
- Care home workers, including those working in old people's homes.
- Freight and logistics personnel (truck drivers etc.) while performing work duties.
- The diplomatic corps, staff from international organizations, military personnel and aid workers in the performance of their duties.
- Representatives of nations participating in international negotiations and individuals participating in the work of international organizations.
- Representatives of foreign media companies.
- People traveling for real estate or property management in Finland.
- Family members of a Finnish citizen living abroad.
- Travel for unavoidable reasons, permitted on compassionate grounds (birth of a child, serious illness of a loved one, the individual's own marriage ceremony were three examples Reinsalu listed) or "other compelling personal reasons". This leaves out siblings from the definition of close relatives, but children, parents and grandparents are considered close relatives.
- Spouses (including cohabitation), children, parents, grandparents are considered relatives. This means that siblings can no longer be visited.
- Students actively studying at a Finnish educational institution at present.
- Those traveling on a Finnish residence permit.
- Those seeking international protection or other humanitarian protection.
- A few other exceptions relating to business, sport and culture.
Reinsalu told ERR Friday evening that: "In essence, we can say that general labor migration between Finland and Estonia will close at midnight on January 27."
Reinsalu, however, added his and the Estonian government's opposition to the move, adding that the government was seeking alternative solutions.
Estonia to present counter-proposals to Finnish government
Estonia's counter-proposals will be presented to the Finnish government soon, Reinsalu said, though the main consideration was keeping the option for migrant workers not included in the exemptions above to continue to enter Finland.
Urmas Reinsalu joined his Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts just before Christmas in unilaterally issuing a direct flights ban on the U.K., a key Estonian ally, for the same reason – fears of more potent COVID-19 strains – as Finland has reinstated its border restrictions. The rest of the EU – the development happened just as the Brexit transition period was expiring, with an agreement still needing signing – joined the embargo in the next few days. Flights between the U.K. and Estonia were permissible again from the new year, though U.K. citizens must meet stricter coronavirus requirements if they want to enter Estonia, than travelers from the EU27 and most other European countries.
Editor: Andrew Whyte