Leading politicians react to lock-down: Clear signals, leadership needed

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Jüri Ratas (left) and Urmas Reinsalu at a government press conference when they were in office during the last administration. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The latest round of government restrictions and a move towards lock-down from Thursday have been met mostly with support from leading coalition and opposition politicians alike. The only areas of criticism come over the timing of the measures, and also the question of whether an emergency situation should be declared.

A certain amount of a grey area in terms of legal powers exists in the matter anyway as well as a Catch-22, when taking the politicians' views as a whole; on the one hand, declaring an emergency situation could seem as an admission that measures up until now had failed. On the other, the very way to get some of the stricter measures put in place and, at least in a former foreign minister's view, a clear beacon of leadership in individual terms, is to reinstall such an emergency situation.

This also comes at a time when business in particular has been voicing strong dissatisfaction with the way in which restrictions are communicated, as much as the restrictions themselves.

Monday's governmental announcement sees some of the regulations in place in many European countries for months coming to Estonia too, as all non-essential stores are to close, with schools to be on overall distance learning, kindergartens working but seen as a last-ditch measure for parents who have no alternative, restaurants and other eateries closed (save for take-outs), and sports and extra-curricular activities only permitted on an individual basis.

In addition, the 2+2 rule (two meters' distance between individuals minimum, no more than two individuals to congregated – ed.) is to apply outdoors as well as inside.

Riigikogu legal affairs committee chief: Emergency situation needs to be backed by concrete steps

Center MP and head of the Riigikogu's legal affairs committee Jaanus Karilaid says that an emergency situation simply for an emergency situation's sake – i.e. to communicate the gravity of the situation – is not needed.

Karilaid said: "For some politicians, there definitely seems to be a mentality that a emergency situation would have a stronger meaning. However, more important than this are two other things: First, an understanding of the existing [coronavirus] regulations, and second, to give a signal as soon as possible as to how the administration intends to compensate for all the damage done."

As an example of poor communication between the center and the rest of the country at a time when no less then three rounds of restrictions have been announced in a week-and-a-half, Karilaid related the story of a Haapsalu plumbing supplies store which: "called me and asked if pipes burst within the next month, what should they do? And how would salaries be paid."

"I would recommend the government be more precise and understandable in its communication," Karilaid, whose party is in office with Reform, said.

Former foreign minister: Need clear chains of command

Former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) noted that declaring an emergency situation, as the previous administration he was a part of had done, is permissible under law if resolution of an emergency is otherwise not going to be forthcoming.

The point at which this should be done has already been and passed, Reinsalu added.

He said: "The situation is so catastrophic that it also requires a different model of governance model for the state," pointing to then-prime minister Jüri Ratas' taking on the role of sole executor of government orders to state agencies from this time last year.

This give a clear chain of command and facilitates concrete, practical steps, he added.

Jüri Ratas: Situation is different from a year ago

Ratas himself, due to be the next Riigikogu speaker after Henn Põlluaas' (EKRE) term ends later this month, noted that the legal landscape was different a year ago.

The two relevant pieces of legislation, the Emergency Act and the Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Act have both been substantially amended

"We can't compare these situations in that sense," Ratas said. 

"Today, the government has far more leeway to decide on restrictions than was the caseu under normal circumstances at the time. At that time, these opportunities did not exist," he said.

All the necessary restrictions can now be imposed without an emergency situation, he added, echoing a line taken by the prime minister, Kaja Kallas, (Reform), too.

Ratas also issued a backhanded compliment to the current administration in terms of the content of its restrictions.

He said: "In my opinion, the restrictions that the government made yesterday are the right restrictions. The only proviso is, they should have come sooner."

Reform Party deputy leader: Not much political will for declaring an emergency situation at this stage

Reform's deputy chair and one time leadership candidate, Hanno Pevkur, adds that some aspects of lock-down would require an emergency situation as a precursor.

Pevkur said: "With regard to on restrictions on movement, an emergency must indeed be declared for certain measures," adding that there was not much political will to do so at present.

Jaanus Karilaid also took a wait-and-see attitude and, as noted above, an emergency situation only when concrete steps follow it.

Kariliad said: "Then you would have to demonstrate where, practically, it adds value."

"This would have meant that today's measures had failed somewhere along the line and, for example, cooperation with the private sector was not working. In such a case, it would be conceivable to talk about an emergency situation."

Reinsalu: Signs that some agencies still not seeing sense of urgency

Urmas Reinsalu noted that some signs of a need for orders were, however, visible – not least the fact that 32 family doctors, or at least 32 patients' lists, had still not seen the start of vaccine prioritization two-and-a-half months after the first doses started arriving, while vaccines generally do not get administered at weekends, another glaring hole, he said.

"With a directive from the head of the emergency situation, it is feasible to establish the work performance and also to direct additional people to those places where critical work is needed in resolving an emergency situation.

Restricting private gatherings to no more than six, such as has been in place in the U.K. for months, appeared as a recommendation from the government's coronavirus advisory council weeks ago, and would also be feasible, Reinsalu said. But again, this would need an emergency manager, i.e an emergency situation.

Ratas: Emergency situation not a 'magic wand'

Overall, Jüri Ratas cautioned against seeing an emergency situation as some kind of magic wand panacea, though it still carried a powerful punch.

"However, in the bigger picture, I think it is an important part of sending a signal to society to all age groups that the situation is one of crisis, the situation is catastrophic, and it affects everyone," Ratas said. 

"Therefore, I think an emergency situation declaration would be a strong signal that we all need to do even more, to reduce contacts even more," the former prime minister added.

Tallinn mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center), whose fiefdom contains over a third of the Estonian population, has also called for an emergency situation.

Last year's emergency situation ("Eriolukord" in Estonian, sometimes mistranslated in English as a "State of Emergency" - which does exist under the constitution as an "Erakorraline seisukord" but is only declared in case of a threat to the constitutional order of Estonia; and was not declared last year) started on March 13 and ran until May 17 inclusive, after being extended from the end of April to that date.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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