AK: Finland preparing to open borders for seaborne commuters

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs undersecretary Märt Volmer. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Finland is mulling opening up its borders to arrivals by sea, a senior official at Estonia's foreign ministry says. Finland has faced widespread condemnation in the Estonian media and elsewhere after sticking to a regime which prevents freedom of movement and counter to European Commission rules, a move which has hit Estonia particularly hard given the large numbers of its citizens and residents who travel to Finland for work.

Märt Volmer, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Monday evening that Finnish trade unions have also protested against the situation and threatened strikes, including in ports.

"This means they have problems with their unions, with their people, and these are growing," Volmer said.

A regular meeting attended by ministry, police and Health Board officials also discussed the matter and possible ways out.

"Our consensus was that these arguments from Finland [for retaining the entry restrictions] are no longer very compelling, since we have been working with the ports and the shipping companies since the beginning of this problem, with a view to removing it," Volmer said.

"For several months now, noone has been able to board a ferry [to Finland] who did not have a negative coronavirus test result to present. There are new wait lines as a result," he went on.

Finland's benchmark 14-day coronavirus rate per 100,000 individuals is 25, beyond which quarantine is triggered, a figure considerably higher than that of other countries and which means only a handful of European countries' arrivals – Iceland is one example – can enter the country without quarantine.

Quarantine is impractical for those traveling from Estonia regularly, to work in various sectors in Finland including construction and the health-care sector.

Estonia's own benchmark rate is 150 per 100,000, meaning Finnish citizens and residents have been able to enter Estonia quarantine-free for many weeks now.

Märt Volmer noted that a recent decision to permit travel by airplane was justified as part of an incremental exit strategy, while ports prepare for a surge in arrival numbers.

As to when a decision may be made by the Finnish government, Volmer said this may be forthcoming next week.

"It would be good that this might come ahead of midsummer's day (June 24 - ed), such that we understand from the members of the working group that they are in any case preparing for this decision to open up labor migration by ship. it can't be confirmed, "said Volmer.

"It's good that this is sufficient ahead of Jaanipäev (June 24 – ed.) and so many of our working group's members understand the reasons for the saga, that they are in any case preparing for such a decision that work commuting will be also opened up to ferry travel. Whether these preparations will lead to a firm decision and whether the [Finnish] government will finally make that decision cannot be confirmed."

Another potential factor is that Finland goes to the polls Sunday in its municipal elections, which had already been put back from April due to the pandemic, while a decision may be deferred until after voting has been concluded.

The European Commission is meanwhile analyzing Finlands labor migration restrictions and preferential treatment given to air travel over seaborne transport, Keit Kasemets, head of the European Commission's representation in Estonia, told AK.

Finland is one of half-a-dozen countries the commission is looking at in respect of reported divergences from EU principles on freedom of movement during the pandemic.

Whether the benchmark 14-day coronavirus rate might be altered by the Finns for work arrivals vis-a-vis tourist arrivals is also not known, AK reported, though Estonia's ambassador to Finland, Sven Sakkov, has called the situation very unfortunate and also the result of Estonia being punished for higher coronavirus rates in Sweden (227 per 100,000 as of last Friday, according to the Estonian foreign ministry – ed.), which shares a land border with Finland.

Estonia's 14-day coronavirus rate as of Monday was 111.97 per 100,000.

Regional daily: Best to have both negative test result proof and vaccine certificate when traveling to Finland

Local daily newspaper Lääne Elu, based in Haapsalu, reported meanwhile (link in Estonian) that those traveling to Finland from Estonia can only do so if they have a proven "unavoidable" reason to do so, along with either evidence of passing negative on a COVID-19 test in the past 72 hours, proof of recovery from the virus in the past six months or proof of having received a coronavirus vaccine at least 21 days before travel to Finland.

At present, only Finnish citizens and residents from Estonia are permitted to enter Finland, unavoidable business trips, while travel for unavoidable or family reasons is also permitted, Lääne Elu reported.

However, from today, Tuesday, travel will also be possible on presentation of a coronavirus vaccine certificate, at least on vessels operated by Estonian line Tallink, but other than that the current regime will remain in place to June 27, the paper reported, though it is recommended to have both (i.e. vaccine certificate and negative test proof) as without the latter, entry into Finland is not guaranteed.

Exceptions to these rules are in place for those coming via cruises, and travelers under the age of 16, Lääne Elu reported, adding that proof of negative test results is recommended for all age 13 and over.

The full Lääne Elu piece (in Estonian) is here.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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