Estonia opened its borders Monday to vaccinated arrivals from so-called third countries, referring primarily to non-European Union states and in practice mainly affecting Russian citizens and the Russian Federation, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported.
While the move was not immediately accompanied by a significant surge in border crossings, these are likely to increase, AK found, though this depends as much on the Russian authorities permitting their own citizens to travel as anything else.
The change coincided with Finland's easing of its own, much-panned, at least on the Estonian side of the Gulf of Finland, travel restrictions, to allow arrivals from Estonia who have been vaccinated, regardless of their reason for travel. This has not led to any noticeable rise in cross-Gulf travel yet, however.
The Estonian authorities recognize all the vaccine types arrivals from Russia are likely to have had – not only the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen doses which have been available in Estonia – but also the controversial Russian-made Sputnik vaccine.
Russia has yet to permit freedom of movement out of the country for its own citizens, however.
Üllar Kustala, head of the Narva border checkpoint, on the Estonian side of the frontier, told AK that: "There will be freedom of movement for those people who have been vaccinated, while people want to enjoy tourism to some extent, and as much as possible. The restrictions have been alleviated, and this can be observed since traffic is actually picking up day-by-day."
Narva is one of the major border crossings on Estonia's land frontier with Russia, but had long lain dormant with the arrival of the pandemic. With the easing of restrictions, many people with family on both sides of the border want to visit each other, AK reported.
The figures are slowly rising – crossings rose from 23,000 in May to 25,000 in June so far AK said.
While Russia was one of the first to introduce coronavirus vaccines, immunization targets are far from having been met, with around 18 million people, or 12 percent of the population, having been inoculated with at least one dose, compared with the goal by this stage of 69 million people (60 percent of the populace).
The epidemiological picture in Russia is such that some cases of the so-called Delta strain, sometimes known as the "Indian" strain of COVID-19, have been detected – an issue which could be resolved by testing, Marje Muusikus, head of the Health Board's (Terviseamet) said.
Infections in Russia have been rising, with over 9,000 new cases found in Moscow alone on each of the two preceding days (compared with 12 for the whole of Estonia between Sunday and Monday – ed.).
Nearer to Estonia, most employers in St. Petersburg require vaccination for their staff, AK reported, though rates there are rising too, and Kremlin press secretary Dmitri Peskov has referred to: "The cunning of the virus."
Finland border regime easing not accompanied yet by surge in arrivals
As regards maritime transport between Finland and Estonia, the lifting of Finland's restrictions coming into effect Monday has not, at least on day one, AK reported.
Virtually all of Estonia's leaders bar the president – and including all seven MEPs, in a rare show of unity, as well as Estonia's ambassador to Finland, and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform), placed continual pressure on Estonia's northern neighbor to ease its restrictions on humanitarian grounds, arguing that there were large numbers of Estonians wanting to go back to Finland to work, or to return home to Estonia to visit relatives if they had remained in Finland.
However, of a vox pop taken by AK Monday, the bulk of arrivals had not planned their trip around the easing of Finland's travel restrictions, with one saying that their child was graduating high school and they wanted to be in attendance, and another saying that the regime could have done with being lifted earlier.
Sirle Arro, marketing manager at the Port of Tallinn, told AK she was confident that passenger numbers between Tallinn and Helsinki will rise in due course and given ongoing vaccination programs and falling COVID-19 rates, while Tallink spokesperson Katri Link noted that this week sees the midsummer holiday on both sides of the gulf, meaning that most people are likely to stay put to begin with.
Link added that proof of vaccination was required, with the second dose being received no more recently than in the past 14 days, was required to travel to Finland for non-work purposes, though a vaccination certificate in general, or proof of a negative test certificate or of having recovered from the virus earlier on, was sufficient for work travel.
Tallink has also restarted its Tallinn-Stockholm cruise line, to commence on July 9, though Sweden has just announced that it will be employing entry restrictions until August 31, as things stand.
Editor: Andrew Whyte