Auditor general: Covid-19 crisis management structure unclear

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A social distancing sign at Tallinn's Christmas market.
A social distancing sign at Tallinn's Christmas market. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The structure for managing the COVID-19 crisis during the second wave was and remains unclear, Auditor General Janar Holm told the government on Friday. Communication was also confusing.

The Health Board and Ministry of Social Affairs should have been the leading authorities in resolving the crisis, the Government Office turned out to be the body fulfilling a coordinating role during the second wave of the virus, Holm said in a letter to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform).

"The law should stipulate clear roles for the Government of the Republic and the Government Office in the strategic management of a crisis that involves the entire state and has an impact on all areas of government," he said.

Holm noted during the second wave of the coronavirus, the Health Board and Ministry of Social Affairs were unable to comprehensively perform their roles as coordinators and the Government Office took on a very large role in the coordination of crisis resolution.

He said no capability for resolving more complex situations during emergencies was ever created in the ministry's and Health Board's area of government as a whole.

The organization of work and management structure for times of crisis have been established on paper only and have never been backed up with resources.

"Illusory preparedness created the situation where the authority designed to resolve crises instead found itself in need of help as the crisis aggravated," he added.

In the National Audit Office's assessment, the Ministry of Social Affairs approached the need to create capability for resolving emergencies like a formality and the ministry's response to the National Audit Office's recommendations was to distance itself.

Ministries' roles have clearly been detailed in the Emergency Act, which stipulates the ministry is responsible for organizing crisis management in its area of government.

"The lesson learned from the COVID-19 crisis shows that work needs to be done to ensure preparedness," Holm said, adding he supports the plan to draw up preparedness legislation.

Holm added the Government Office should have a clearer monitoring obligation to assess the performance of authorities leading the resolution of crises and to help solve problems.

"I must say that the National Audit Office made similar recommendations in its 2018 reports, but was met with resistance by the Government Office. It is reasonable that the position of the Government Office has now changed and real life has demonstrated what works and what doesn't," Holm said.

Communication should come through "official channels"

Holm also criticized the government's coronavirus-related communication.

"The information should be communicated through official channels and only when the decision is final and the important details have been agreed upon," he said.

Holm noted that within one week, the public was informed about a decision on three to five different occasions and through as many channels, such as social media, official press releases and members of the research council.

"There was a lot of information and the snippets announced in the various stages of the decision-making process resulted in a situation where after the said process has been completed, the public was confused as to which restrictions and guidelines had actually been established and which had not - which ones just remained proposals or changed in the course of legislative drafting compared to what had been said about them earlier," the letter reads.

Kallas: Government messages have become clearer

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) told ETV's current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" on Friday the crisis management system has already been changed.

Replying to Holm's comments she said it has been centralized in the State Chancellery and closer co-operation is now being established with entrepreneurs.

"The clarity of messages is an important concern in the crisis, because people want clear messages in a crisis. But if the scientific advisory board wants to express an opinion, we also have the freedom of expression and we cannot prohibit the expression of opinion. But the messages coming out of the government, I believe, have become clearer," Kallas said.

Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa), chairman of the Special Committee on the State Budget of the Riigikogu, said the Riigikogu should play a greater role in crisis management, not only the coalition.

"In my opinion, there should also be a special committee in the parliament, similar to the EU affairs committee, to review and debate the government's planned decisions. We would have at least some kind of predictability and some kind of discussion forum about the reasonableness and sustainability of these decisions," Reinsalu said.

Editor's note: This article was updated to add comments from Kaja Kallas and Urmas Reinsalu.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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